'Seven licensed churches - Hundreds of thousands of worshipers'

Recently a controversial incident at the Catholic church in Kuwait City garnered international attention. Not everyone knows that there is a sizable, diverse Christian community in Kuwait. But Christians have been here from the earliest days and in fact there are Christian Kuwaiti families.

Last December MP Ahmad Al-Fahdl called on the government to declare Christmas a holiday. The gesture was welcomed by many Christians in Kuwait as 'good' for religious tolerance and freedom of religion in the country. The constitution declares that Islam is Kuwait's official religion, but provides absolute freedom of belief and freedom of religious practice here. According to the latest Public Authority for Civil Information statistics, more than 822,000 Christians reside in Kuwait. The overwhelming majority of them are non-citizens, while approximately 200 plus Kuwaitis hailing from eight families declare themselves Christians.

Seven licensed churches

There are seven officially licensed Christian churches in Kuwait that are recognized by the government: The National Evangelical (Protestant), Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic (Melkite), Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and Anglican. The Ministry of Interior provides residency permits, security and protection of places of worship of licensed churches, while the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor issues visas for clergy and other staff. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Municipality handle building permits and land issues.

The Seventh Day Adventist Church in Kuwait, a Christian congregation, has been in existence in Kuwait for the last 45 years, and according to Pastor Jonnie, the current head of the church in Salwa, it has encountered no issues with the government. "Worshippers hail from various nationalities. Right now, we have around 250 active members. They come and go as we mostly comprise of migrant workers. Most worshippers are temporary workers - after some time, they move to another country or go back to their countries of origin," he told Kuwait Times.

Smaller groups of Christians in Kuwait are part of the Greek Orthodox Church in Salwa and the Church of Christ and other Filipino Christian churches mostly affiliated with the National Evangelical Church. The Catholic Church has three major houses of worship - the Holy Family Cathedral in Kuwait City, the Ahmadi Church and the Saint Therese Parish Church in Salmiya. The Evangelical Church in Kuwait City is headed by Kuwaiti Pastor Emmanuel Gharib, and has several satellite branches in various areas including Mishref. Under it are smaller groups of community churches like the Filipino Language Christian Congregation, headed by Bishop Jun Nones.

Freedom of religion

"Christians in Kuwait can freely practice their faith as freedom of worship is enshrined in the Kuwaiti constitution. But this freedom should be enjoyed together with the obedience and observance of the laws of Kuwait. One thing that we're praying for is the awarding of more plots where churches can build bigger halls of worship, as the present church structures can't accommodate everyone. This will also prevent the use of residential buildings as worship halls, which many a time is the cause of friction with neighboring apartments. I thank the leadership of Kuwait, especially His Highness the Amir of Kuwait, for granting this freedom," Nones said.

Bishop Massis Zobenian, Patriarchal Vicar of Kuwait, said Christians in Kuwait enjoyed religious freedom even before the Iraqi invasion in 1990. "My community here numbered around 15,000 before the Iraqi invasion. We enjoyed freedom then that every Christian enjoys now - we have schools here, we have a church here - so you can say that Kuwait is tolerant of other religions. Nowadays, we have about 4,000 Armenians in Kuwait, and we are a very well-organized community. We celebrate Mass every Friday in the church, observe feasts of the saints and celebrate Christmas too," he said.

The annual US State Department on International Religious Freedom Report describes the status of religious freedom in Kuwait as 'improving'. It says that there is no registration procedure for religious groups, although all non-Muslim religious groups must apply in writing for a license to establish an official place of worship. Applications to establish places of worship are governed by the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs. Once permitted, the group can hire its own staff, sponsor visitors and open bank accounts.

By Ben Garcia