International Religious Freedom Report: Kuwait
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government placed some limits on this right. The Constitution also provides that the State shall protect the freedom to practice religion in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals. The Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a (Islamic law) is a main source of legislation.
There was some improvement in the status of respect for religious freedom during the reporting period. Government officials met with various religious groups in the country and held a conference to promote religious tolerance. The Ministry of Education continued to review a Shi'a request to strike anti-Shi'a comments from Islamic education textbooks and a Catholic petition to allow Catholics students to study the Catechism during the period allotted for Islamic studies. An Apostolic Nunciature, based in the country, continued to represent Vatican interests in the region.
The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has an area of 6,880 square miles, and its population is 2.8 million, of whom an estimated 2.1 million are Muslim, including nearly all 956,000 citizens. The remainder consists of approximately 1.8 million foreign workers and their families and 107,000 Bidoon (officially stateless) Arabs with residence ties to the country but who either have no documentation of or are unwilling to disclose their nationality. While the national census does not distinguish between Shi'a and Sunni adherents, the majority of citizens, including the ruling family, belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The Sunni Muslim population is approximately 1.7 million, 669,000 of whom are citizens. The remaining 30 percent of Muslim citizens (approximately 287,000) are Shi'a, as are approximately 100,000 noncitizen residents. Estimates of the Christian population range from 250,000 to 300,000 (including approximately 200 citizens, most of whom belong to 12 large families).
The Christian community includes: the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church with approximately 100 members (several thousand other Christians also use the Anglican Church for worship services); Armenian Orthodox Church with approximately 4,000 members; Coptic Orthodox Church with an estimated 65,000 members; Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church with approximately 2,000 members (Greek Catholics worship in a rented house, not at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait City); Greek Orthodox Church (referred to in Arabic as the Roman Orthodox Church, a reference to the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium) with an estimated 3,500 members; National Evangelical (Protestant) Church with 3 main congregations (Arabic, English, and Malayalee) and approximately 20,000 members (several other Christian denominations also worship at the National Evangelical Church compound); and the Roman Catholic Church, with 2 official churches and a third worship facility in a rented house, with an estimated 150,000 members (Latin, Maronite, Coptic Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Malabar, and Malankara congregations all worship at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait City).
There are many other unrecognized Christian denominations, totaling tens of thousands of members. These include: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Indian Orthodox Syrian Church, Mar Thoma, and Seventh-day Adventists.
There are also communities of Baha'is (estimated 400 adherents), Buddhists (estimated 100,000), Hindus (estimated 300,000), and Sikhs (approximately 10,000).
Missionary groups in the country serve non-Muslim congregations. The Government prohibits proselytizing to Muslims.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Government placed some limits on this right. The Constitution also provides that the State shall protect the freedom to practice religion in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals. The Constitution declares that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a is a main source of legislation. The Government observes Islamic holy days.
The 1961 Press and Publications Law specifically prohibits the publication of any material that attacks religions or incites persons to commit crimes, create hatred, or spread dissension among the public. There are laws against blasphemy, apostasy, and proselytizing. These laws sometimes have been used to restrict religious freedom.
The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs has official responsibility for overseeing religious groups. Officially recognized churches must deal with a variety of government entities, including the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (for visas and residence permits for pastors and other staff) and the Municipality of Kuwait (for building permits and land issues). While reportedly there is no official government list of recognized churches, seven Christian churches have at least some form of official recognition enabling them to operate openly. These seven churches have open files at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, allowing them to bring in pastors and staff to operate their churches.
Four denominations are widely understood to enjoy full recognition by the Government and are allowed to operate compounds officially designated as churches: Anglican, Coptic Orthodox, National Evangelical (Protestant), and Roman Catholic. However, they face quotas on the number of clergy and staff they can bring in to the country, and their existing facilities are inadequate to serve their respective communities.
The Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church has an open file at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. Greek Catholics worship in a rented house (two other Indian Catholic denominations also use the house for worship services).
The Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches are allowed to operate openly, hire employees, invite religious speakers, and conduct other such activities without government interference; however, according to government records, their facilities are registered only as private homes. For example, the Armenian Orthodox Church rents a private house from a citizen and uses it for worship services and other religious purposes. No other churches or religions have legal status, but adherents generally are allowed to operate freely in private homes provided that they do not violate laws limiting public assembly or prohibiting proselytizing.
The procedures for registration and licensing of religious groups appear to be connected to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In 1993, the Council of Ministers ordered all unlicensed NGOs to cease activities, but this order has never been enforced. There are hundreds of unlicensed, informal NGOs, clubs, and civic groups in the country. Since 1985, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor has issued only 13 new NGO licenses, including 6 in May 2005. As of June, there were 174 NGO applications pending with the Ministry.
In February, the Government announced it would remove all street-side Islamic charity boxes out of concern that the lack of transparency of this kind of donation made it difficult to monitor whether these funds were used to finance terror operations; removal was completed in March. All charitable contributions of licensed Islamic charities in the country now require Central Bank approval. There is a charitable organizations department within the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor that is responsible for regulating religious charities based in the country by reviewing their applications for registration and monitoring their operations.
The Higher Advisory Committee on Completion of the Application of Islamic Shari'a Provisions is tasked with preparing society for the full implementation of Shari'a in all fields. The committee makes recommendations to the Amir on ways in which current laws can be brought into better conformity with Islamic Shari'a, but it has no authority to enforce such changes. The committee reviewed laws during the year related to the Penal Code and the Banking Code. The Constitution says Shari'a is a main source of legislation, but some Islamists would like to amend that to the only source of legislation.
The following Islamic holy days are considered national holidays: Islamic New Year, Birth of the Prophet, Ascension of the Prophet, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha.
The Government requires Islamic religious instruction in public schools for all students.
In May, the Government, through the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, sponsored a conference on moderation and tolerance to reduce extremism and intolerance. Government officials continued to meet with Muslim leaders and the heads of various Christian denominations to promote interfaith understanding.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Shi'a are free to worship according to their faith without government interference, and the overall situation for Shi'a improved somewhat during the reporting period. However, members of the Shi'a community have expressed concern about the relative scarcity of Shi'a mosques due to the Government's slow approval of the construction of new mosques and the repair of existing ones. (There are approximately 36 Shi'a mosques compared with approximately 1,070 Sunni mosques in the country.) Since 2001, the Government has granted licenses for and has approved the construction of six new Shi'a mosques. Three mosques reportedly are under construction and scheduled to open in 2005.
There are approximately 650 Shi'a husseiniyas in the country, most of which are informal or unlicensed.
Family law is administered through religious courts. The Government permits Shi'a to follow their own jurisprudence in matters of personal status and family law at the first-instance and appellate levels. In 2003, the Government approved a long-standing Shi'a request to establish a Shi'a court of cassation (Supreme Court) to handle Shi'a personal status and family law cases at the highest judicial level. However, the court has not yet been established because there are no Shi'a (Ja'fari) judges for this level of jurisdiction. In November 2003, the Government publicly announced its approval of another long-standing Shi'a request for the establishment of an independent Shi'a (Ja'fari) waqf, an agency to administer religious endowments in accordance with the Ja'fari school of jurisprudence.
Shi'a who aspire to serve as imams are forced to seek appropriate training and education abroad (mainly in Iraq and Iran) due to the lack of Shi'a jurisprudence courses at Kuwait University's College of Islamic Law (Faculty of Shari'a). The Ministry of Education is reviewing a Shi'a application to establish a private college to train Shi'a clerics. On January 22, a Shi'a leader called on the Ministry of Education to remove references declaring Shi'a as nonbelievers from high school Islamic education textbooks. Sunni scholars author the books, which are entirely based on the Sunni interpretation of Islam.
Shi'a remained under-represented in upper levels of government. In 2003, 5 Shi'a were elected to the 50-seat National Assembly, compared with 6 Shi'a in the previous assembly. The only Shi'a member of the Council of Ministers, Information Minister Muhammad Abdallah Abbas Abulhasan, resigned in January. In June, however, the Government appointed Dr. Ma'souma Al-Mubarak, a Shi'a and the first female Council member, as Minister of Planning and Minister of State for Administrative Development. There were no known Shi'a in the Kuwait State Security (KSS) forces.
In March 2004, the Government permitted Shi'a to stage a public reenactment of the Battle of Karbala depicting the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammed's grandson. Kuwait TV, also for the first time, broadcast programs on the Shi'a religious holiday of Ashura; however, the Government denied a Shi’a request during the reporting period to hold the same reenactment.
During the reporting period, a number of liberal attorneys reported that the judicial system is dominated by Islamists who practice law with a heavy conservative bias. In the judicial system, roughly half of the judges are noncitizens, mostly Egyptian. The noncitizen judges are on 1- to 3-year contracts that must be renewed in order for them to remain employed. Most of the noncitizen judges are trained in Shari'a law and not in the country's civil code, thereby increasing the likelihood of rulings based on religious interpretation.
The Anglican, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, National Evangelical, and Roman Catholic churches operate freely on their premises and hold worship services without government interference. Their leaders also state that the Government generally is supportive of their presence, even providing police security and traffic control as needed. Other Christian denominations (including Indian Orthodox, Mar Thoma, Mormons, and Seventh-day Adventists) are not recognized legally but are allowed to operate in rented villas, private homes, or in the facilities of recognized churches. Members of these congregations have reported that they are able to worship without government interference, provided that they do not disturb their neighbors nor violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. Churches outside of the four recognized denominations are prohibited from displaying exterior signage, including a cross or the congregation's name, or engaging in other public activities, such as ringing bells.
There were no reports that the Government engaged in anti-Semitic activity during the reporting period; however, there were incidents of unofficial anti-Semitic commentary from media pundits and by some mosque preachers. The Government has taken no action to enact laws to protect the religious freedom of Jews, although there is no significant Jewish community present. There have been past examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric, such as citing Qur'anic verses to denounce the political intentions of the Jewish people, in government-sponsored education curricula, specifically in reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Members of religions not sanctioned in the Qur'an, such as Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, may not build official places of worship since these religions lack legal status, but they are allowed to worship privately in their homes without government interference.
During the reporting period, there were noclosures of Sikh house temples. The Sikh community was able to worship freely in a rented apartment designated for worship and in private homes. Sikhs also engaged in other religious activities, including public marriage and other celebrations, without government interference.
In 2003, the Government reportedly closed the file on the National Evangelical Church (NEC) due to the NEC's alleged failure to comply with the National Manpower Support Law by employing the requisite number of citizens. The Government reinstated the NEC's open file status by May 2004, and the Church was able to apply for and renew visas for pastors and staff; however, in accordance with the Law, the Government imposed substantial annual fines for every visa application or renewal submittedon behalf of noncitizen staff, in addition to routine visa and residency fees. Church leaders negotiated with government authorities to resolve the fine issue and exempt the Church from the law's Kuwaitization requirements. The issue was resolved during the reporting period, and fines are no longer being levied.
The Government prohibits missionaries from proselytizing among Muslims; however, they may serve non-Muslim congregations. The law prohibits organized religious education for religions other than Islam, although this law is not enforced rigidly. Informal religious instruction occurs inside private homes and on church compounds without government interference; however, there were reports that government inspectors from the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs periodically visited public and private schools outside of church compounds to ensure that religious teaching other than Islam did not take place. During the reporting period, the Government still had not responded to the request from the Roman Catholic Church to permit Catholic students in certain private schools to study the Catechism separately during the period allotted for instruction in Islam.
The Roman Catholic Church faces severe overcrowding at its two official church facilities. Its cathedral in downtown Kuwait City regularly draws tens of thousands of worshippers to its more than 20 weekly services in several languages. Due to limited space on the compound, the Church is unable to construct any new buildings. The National Evangelical Church, which serves a weekly average of 20,000 worshippers in approximately 60 congregations, is also overcrowded. The Church is seeking approximately 15 to 20 acres of new land to alleviate overcrowding and petitioned the Government for additional land in 2004. As of May, the Government had not responded to the Church's request.
The Coptic Orthodox Church also faces challenges, such as overcrowding at its small compound in Kuwait City. In 2002, the Government notified the Church of its intention to reacquire the parcel of land on which the church is located for a road expansion project. The following year, the Government granted the Church 6,500 square meters of new land in Hawally district to build a new place of worship; the Church had requested only 5,000 square meters. The Government has not offered any financial assistance to construct a new church, but municipal authorities provided a written commitment, in response to a church request, that it would not force the Church to vacate its current premises until a new facility was available. No date had been set for the church's relocation.
In December 2004, in the region of Jahra, a group of Salafi Islamists forced a well-known supermarket to remove Christmas trees and greeting cards from its shelves, claiming that holiday items connected to Christmas and New Year's celebrations were contrary to Islamic teachings. The group reportedly produced a petition with 350 signatures demanding the removal, explaining that allowing such goods to be available was haram (forbidden).
The Government does not permit the establishment of non-Islamic publishing companies or training institutions for clergy. Nevertheless, several churches publish religious materials for use solely by their congregations. Further, some churches, in the privacy of their compounds, provide informal instruction to individuals interested in joining the clergy.
A private company, the Book House Company Ltd., is permitted to import a significant number of Bibles and other Christian religious materials, including videotapes and compact discs, for use solely by the congregations of the country's recognized churches. The Book House Company Ltd. is the only bookstore that has an import license to bring in such materials, which also require approval by government censors. There have been reports of customs officials confiscating non-Islamic religious materials from private citizens upon their arrival at the airport. In 2003, police arrested five foreign workers for allegedly proselytizing with Bibles in Andalus district. State security officials later released the individuals on condition that they sign commitments pledging to refrain from proselytizing.
The Islam Presentation Committee (IPC), under the authority of the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, actively encouraged proselytizing to non-Muslims. The IPC maintained an office at the Central Prison to provide religious education and information to inmates. In late 2003, the IPC established the NGO Advocates of Western-Arab Relations and Exchange to promote awareness of Islam and understanding of Arab and Islamic culture and provide training courses to foreigners.
Although there is a small community of approximately 200 acknowledged Christian citizens, a 1980 law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims; however, citizens who were Christians before 1980 are allowed to transmit their citizenship to their descendents.
The law forbids marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men. A non-Muslim female is not required by law to convert to Islam to marry a Muslim male. In practice, many non-Muslim women face strong economic and societal pressure to convert. Failure to convert may mean that, should the couple later divorce, the Muslim father would be granted custody of any children. A non-Muslim woman who fails to convert also is ineligible to inherit her husband's property or to be naturalized.
Women continue to experience legal and social discrimination. In the family courts, one man's testimony is sometimes given the same weight as that of two women; however, in the civil, criminal, and administrative courts, the testimony of women and men is considered equally. Unmarried women 21 years of age or older are free to obtain a passport and travel abroad without permission of a male relative; however, a married woman must obtain her husband's permission to apply for or renew a passport. Once she has a passport, a married woman does not need her husband's permission to travel, but he may prevent her departure from the country by placing a 24-hour travel ban on her through immigration authorities. After this 24-hour period, a court order is required if the husband still wishes to prevent his wife from leaving the country. In practice, however, many travel bans are issued without court order, effectively preventing citizens and foreigners from departing. All minor children (under age 21) require their father's permission to travel outside the country. This also applies to children born to citizen fathers and noncitizen mothers; such children are regarded as citizens and must be raised as Muslims.
Inheritance is governed by Islamic law, which differs according to the branch of Islam. In the absence of a direct male heir, Shi'a women may inherit all property, while Sunni women inherit only a portion with the balance divided among brothers, uncles, and male cousins of the deceased.
During the reporting period, there were no reports of the Government prohibiting state employees from displaying or practicing any elements of their faith. However, in late 2003, the headmistress of a public high school in Farwaniya district reportedly dismissed several female students for failure to wear the Islamic hijab (headscarf). The school readmitted the students and the headmistress was criticized widely in the local media.
The law requires jail terms for journalists who defame religion. Academic freedom is limited in practice by self-censorship, and academics, like journalists, are legally prohibited from criticizing Islam. The law also provides that any Muslim citizen may file criminal charges against an author if the citizen believes that the author has defamed Islam, the ruling family, or public morals.
On March 20, an appeals court sentenced a journalist to a 1 year suspended sentence for a 2004 article deemed to defame the Qur'an. The publication's editor received a $170 (50KD) fine in 2004. Three Islamist activists filed the complaint resulting in the court case.
In January 2004, the Court of Misdemeanor sentenced a Shi'a citizen to 1 year in jail with hard labor and fined him approximately $3,500 (1,000 KD) for producing and distributing an audiotape defaming the Islamic (Sunni) religion, degrading its rituals and rites, and defaming and abusing the Prophet Muhammed's Companions. In February 2004, the citizen reportedly was released from prison in error by an Amiri pardon issued on the occasion of the country's National Day. The Government subsequently issued a warrant for his arrest, but he reportedly remained at large. In March 2004, the Appeals Court dismissed the original misdemeanor verdict and referred the citizen's case to the Public Prosecutor for re-trial by the Criminal Court. As a result, the citizen also faced more serious charges of violating the State Security Law. In May 2004, the Criminal Court sentenced him to 10 years in jail in absentia for defaming (Sunni) Islam. Most Shi'a believe that hardline Sunni Islamist pressure was behind the Government's harsh action against the individual, even though they too publicly condemned his anti-Sunni statements and the audiocassette incident.
In April 2004, Sunni Islamist members of the National Assembly's Education, Culture, and Guidance Committee proposed separating an article in the Press and Publications Law governing the penalties for blasphemy and other crimes that defame religion into two distinct articles: one outlining the penalties for blasphemy and disparagement of messengers, prophets, angels, and the Holy Qur'an; and the other specifying affronting the Prophet Muhammed's Companions and wives as a separate offense (i.e., specifically criminalizing Shi'a disparagement of Sunni religious belief). By June, the committee had not issued a final decision on the issue.
The Ministry of Interior, General Customs Department, arrested and deported 32 individuals in 2004 for allegedly practicing sorcery and confiscated alleged sorcery-related materials during the reporting period.
The Government does not designate religion on passports or national identity documents.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.
Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States. There have been cases in which U.S. citizen children have been abducted from the United States and not allowed to return under the law; however, there were no reports that such children were forced to convert to Islam, or that forced conversion was the reason that they were not allowed to return to the United States.
Abuses by Terrorist Organizations
There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the reporting period.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
The Ministry of Education continued to review a Shi'a proposal to establish a private college to train Shi'a clerics; however, at the end of the reporting year, no action had been taken. The Ministry also continued to review a request from the Roman Catholic Church to allow Catholic students at certain private schools to study the Catechism during the time allotted for Islamic instruction.
There was increased interfaith dialogue among Christian denominations with the establishment of a council representing Christian leaders from various churches. Government officials promoted interfaith understanding by meeting with Shi'a and Sunni leaders. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs also sponsored a conference in an attempt to increase religious tolerance.
On May 28, more than 10,000 worshippers from the Bohra community celebrated the Sultan of Bohra's birthday without interference. The Bohra participants, who are Shi'a Muslims mainly from Gujarat in western India, gathered at their community center.
The death of Pope John Paul II received wide press coverage throughout April 2005, including full-page spreads in local newspapers. In a country whose Catholic population comprises approximately 5 percentof all residents, the Government issued a public statement expressing "agony of the Christian brothers" following the Pope's death. Senior Kuwaiti officials attended commemoration events at the Catholic cathedral, and an Amiri envoy led a delegation representing the Government at the Pope’s funeral in the Vatican.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
In general there are amicable relations among the various religious communities, and citizens generally are open and tolerant of other religions; however, there is a small minority of ultraconservatives opposed to the presence of non-Muslim groups.
While some discrimination based on religion reportedly occurs on a personal level, most observers agree that it is not widespread. There is a perception among some domestic employees and other members of the unskilled labor force, particularly Southeast Asian nationals, that they would receive better treatment from employers as well as from society as a whole if they converted to Islam; however, others do not see conversion to Islam as a factor in this regard.
The conversion of Muslims to other religions is forbidden. While such conversions reportedly have occurred, they have been done quietly and discreetly. Known converts face harassment, including: loss of job, repeated summonses to police stations, arbitrary detention, physical and verbal abuse, police monitoring of their activities, and property damage without legal recourse.
The liberation of Iraq's Shi'a majority has increased the assertiveness of Shi'a in the country, who achieved some important gains against institutionalized discrimination during the reporting period. Some hardline Sunni Islamist extremists became more outwardly hostile toward Shi'a religious practices and distributed virulently anti-Shi'a leaflets outside Sunni mosques during the reporting period. To prevent an escalation in sectarian tensions and demonstrate the Government's commitment to religious freedom, the Prime Minister met separately with the various religious and political groups during the year to promote religious tolerance and combat extremism.
During the reporting period, some well-known Salafis called on Muslims to refrain from congratulating non-Muslims on their holidays. In December 2004, the Chairman of the Revival of Islamic Heritage Society’s (RIHS) Good Word Committee announced in an Arabic daily newspaper that it is forbidden for Muslims to imitate non-Muslims in all matters, including participating in non-Muslim festivals and holidays. The announcement stated that Muslims are "prohibited from sharing the Christian and other infidel faiths' holidays in any form, whether by attendance, exchange of gifts, or expression of joy."
During the reporting period, an extremist Salafi cleric preached violent jihad in Kuwait. The Government also blocked access to the Salafi preacher's website in February and banned him from preaching at his mosque in March. He then was detained by KSS forces for alleged links to two of the January shoot-outs between law enforcement officials and militants.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Intensive monitoring of religious freedom issues has long been an Embassy priority. U.S. Embassy officials meet frequently with recognized Sunni, Shi'a, and Christian groups, as well as representatives of various unrecognized faiths and of NGOs that deal with religious freedom issues. Such meetings have afforded Embassy officials the opportunity to learn about the status and concerns of religious groups and to monitor progress on religious freedom.
The Ambassador and other Embassy officers actively encourage the Government to address the concerns of religious leaders, such as overcrowding, lack of adequate worship spaceand access to religious materials, insufficient staffing, and bureaucratic delays in processing routine requests. During the reporting period, Embassy officials met with senior representatives from the major recognized Christian denominations in the country, encouraged them to present their concerns in a unified manner to the Government, and advocated on their behalf in high-level meetings with government officials.
Embassy facilities are used for weekly services by Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations largely composed of official personnel and Western expatriates. Official premises are used for these services due to overcrowding and security concerns at compounds located in the downtown area.
Source: U.S. Department of State, 2005 Annual Report on International Religious Freedom, Released by the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Washington, DC, (November 8, 2005)