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Reports on Religious Freedom: Kuwait


Islam is the state religion; although the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, the Government places some limits on this right.

There was no significant change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There are generally amicable relations among the different religions in society. There were no new reports of vandalism or other actions against the country's Christian churches. One violent incident in April 2000 against a Muslim citizen was attributed to Sunni Muslim extremists and was criticized harshly by the Government and society at large. Complaints by the Shi'a community about continued difficulties in obtaining approval for the construction of new mosques attracted national attention when approval for the construction of a mosque in the Al-Qurain area was denied by the municipality of Kuwait after it had been pending for 9 years. In May 2000, there were indications that the national Government would reverse this decision.

The U. S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Government Policies on Freedom of Religion

Legal/Policy Framework

Islam is the state religion; although the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, the Government places some limits on this right. The Constitution also provides that the State protect the freedom to practice religion in accordance with established customs, "provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals." The Constitution states that Shari'a (Islamic law) is "a main source of legislation."

The procedures for registration and licensing of religious groups are unclear. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs has official responsibility for overseeing religious groups. Nevertheless, in reality 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 Kuwaiti Municipality (for building permits). While there reportedly is no official government "list" of recognized churches, seven Christian churches have at least some sort of official recognition that enables them to operate openly. These seven churches have open "files" at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, allowing them to bring in the pastors and staff necessary to run their churches. Further, by tradition three of the country's churches are widely recognized as enjoying "full recognition" by the Government and are allowed to operate compounds officially designated as churches: the Catholic Church (which includes two separate churches), the Anglican Church, and the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait (Protestant). The other four churches reportedly are allowed to operate openly, hire employees, invite religious speakers, etc., all without interference from the Government, but their compounds are, according to government records, registered only as private homes. The churches themselves appear uncertain about the guidelines or procedures for recognition. Some have argued that these procedures are purposely kept vague by the Government so as to maintain the status quo. All other churches and religions have no legal status but are allowed to operate in private homes.

The procedures for registration and licensing of religious groups also appear to be connected with government restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGO's), religious or otherwise. In 1993 all unlicensed organizations were ordered by the Council of Ministers to cease their activities. This order has never been enforced; however, since that time all but three applications by NGO's have been frozen. There were reports that in the last few years at least two groups have applied for permission to build their own churches, but the Government has not yet responded to their requests.

Religious Demography

Among a total population of 2.2 million, approximately 1.5 million persons are Muslim, including the vast majority of the 750,000 citizens. The remainder of the overall population consists of the large foreign labor force and over 100,000 stateless persons, most of whom are Muslim. The ruling family and many prominent families belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The total Sunni Muslim population is approximately 1 million, 500,000 of whom are citizens. The remaining 30 to 40 percent of Muslim residents (approximately 500,000) are Shi'a, 250,000 of whom are citizens. Estimates of the nominal Christian population range from 250,000 to 500,000 (including approximately 200 citizens, most of whom belong to 12 large families).

The Christian community consists of the Roman Catholic Diocese, with 2 churches and an estimated 75,000 members (Maronite Christians also worship at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait city); the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, with 115 members (several thousand other Christians use the Anglican Church for worship services); the National Evangelical Church (Protestant), with 3 main congregations (Arabic, English, and "Malayalee") and 15,000 members (several other Christian denominations also worship at the National Evangelical Church Compound); the Greek Orthodox Church (referred to locally as the "Roman Orthodox" Church), with 3,500 members; the Armenian Orthodox Church, with 4,000 members; the Coptic Orthodox Church, with 60,000 members; and the Greek Catholic (Eastern Rite) Church, whose membership totals are unavailable.

There are many other unrecognized Christian denominations in the country, with tens of thousands of members. These denominations include Seventh-Day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Marthoma, and the Indian Orthodox Syrian Church.

There are also members of religions not sanctioned in the Koran, such as Hindus (100,000 members), Sikhs (10,000), Baha'is (400), and Buddhists (no statistics available).

Governmental Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Shi'a are free to conduct their traditional forms of worship without government interference; however, members of the Shi'a community have complained about the scarcity of Shi'a mosques due to the Government's slowness or failure to grant approval for the construction of new Shi'a mosques as well as the repair of existing mosques. The community was particularly critical in May 2000 when the municipality rejected a 9-year-old petition for construction of a Shi'a mosque in the Al-Qurain area. Although the municipality apparently relented due to direct government intervention, there are still complaints about the lack of sufficient Shi'a mosques. There are approximately 30 Shi'a mosques compared with the 1,300 Sunni mosques in the country. However, Shi'a have noted some improvement in recent years in that a small number of approvals have been granted for the construction of Shi'a mosques.

Shi'a leaders also have complained that Shi'a who aspire to serve as imams are forced to seek appropriate training and education abroad due to the lack of Shi'a jurisprudence courses at Kuwait University's College of Islamic Law. They also have expressed concern that certain pending proposed legislation within the National Assembly does not take beliefs specific to the Shi'a into account.

The Roman Catholic, Anglican, National Evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Greek Catholic Churches are able to operate freely on their compounds, holding worship services without government interference. These leaders also state that the Government generally has been supportive of their presence, even providing police security and traffic direction as needed. Other Christian denominations (including Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Marthoma, and Indian Orthodox), while not recognized legally, are allowed to operate in 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 and do not violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing.

Members of religions not sanctioned in the Koran, such as Hindus and Buddhists, may not build places of worship, but are allowed to worship privately in their homes without interference from the Government.

The Government prohibits missionaries from proselytizing to 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" periodically visit public and private schools outside of church compounds to ensure that no religious teaching other than Islam takes place.

The Government does not permit the establishment of non-Islamic publishing companies or training institutions for clergy. Nevertheless, several churches do 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 significant amounts of Bibles and other Christian religious material--including, as of early 2000, videotapes and compact discs--for use solely among the congregations of the country's recognized churches. The Book House Company is the only bookstore that has an import license to bring in such materials, which also must be approved by government censors. There have been reports of private citizens having non-Islamic religious materials confiscated by customs officials upon arrival at the airport.

Although there is a small community of Christian citizens, a law passed in 1980 prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims. However, citizens who were Christians before 1980 (and children born to families of such citizens since that date), are allowed to transmit their citizenship to their children.

According to the law, a non-Muslim male must convert to Islam when he marries a Muslim woman if the wedding is to be legal in Kuwait. A non-Muslim female does not have to convert to Islam to marry a Muslim male, but it is to her advantage to do so. Failure to convert may mean that, should the couple later divorce, the Muslim father would be granted custody of any children.

In April 2000, the Government formed a joint interministerial committee to study ways to control extremist groups (see Section II).

The law requires jail terms for journalists who ridicule religion. In the period covered by this report, Islamists used this law to threaten writers with prosecution for publishing opinions deemed insufficiently observant of Islamic norms. In January 2000, the Kuwaiti Court of Misdemeanors found two female Kuwaiti authors, Alia Shuaib and Leila Al-Othman, guilty of writing books that were blasphemous and obscene. Shuaib and Al-Othman were sentenced to 2 months in prison which could be suspended upon payment of a $160 (50 Kuwaiti dinars) fine. On March 26, a Kuwaiti appeals court acquitted Shuaib of the charges of blasphemy and publishing works that ridicule religion. Al-Othman's conviction of using indecent language was upheld. The court's judgments represented the latest in a series of cases brought by Islamists against secular authors. The court did not provide explanations for its rulings.

In early 2000, a Vatican representative arrived in the country to establish a permanent mission. The mission, which currently is headed by a charge d'affaires who temporarily resides at the Roman Catholic Church, also is to represent Vatican interests in the smaller Gulf States and Yemen. The Church views the Government's acquiescence to establish relations with the Vatican as significant in terms of government tolerance of Christianity.

There was no significant change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

Forced Religious Conversion of Minor U.S. Citizens

There were no reports of the forced religious conversions of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's 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, the father receives custody in such cases, and his permission is required for the children to leave the country); 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.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

In general, there are amicable relations among the different religions, and citizens generally are open and tolerant of other religions. While there is a small minority of ultraconservatives opposed to the presence of non-Muslim groups, there were no new reports of vandalism or other actions against the country's Christian churches during the period covered by this report. There was one reported incident in April 2000 of vigilante justice by extremists against a female Muslim university student, who allegedly was beaten by three men for un-Islamic behavior. Subsequent reports claimed that up to seven members of the extremist group Takfir Wa Hijra (Brand Infidels and Expel Them) were involved in the assault and had been involved in similar incidents in recent years. The accused were arrested within days and the Government formed a joint ministerial committee to study ways to control such groups. However, the evidence supporting the student's charges did not hold up in court and on June 12, Kuwait's criminal court acquitted the accused suspects. While reactions to this incident varied, in general, most citizens were critical of the extremists' actions.

During the same month, unidentified gunmen fired shots at a "husseiniya" (religious meeting place for Shi'a). Although the identities of the assailants were never determined, the incident contributed to a perception by some that extremists (the presumed attackers) are becoming increasingly disruptive to society.

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 nationals from Southeast Asian countries, that they would receive better treatment from employers as well as 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 a very sensitive matter. While it is reported that such conversions have occurred, they have been done quietly and discreetly. Muslim conversions that become public are likely to trigger hostility within society, as demonstrated by a 1996 case in which the convert received death threats.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

The Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights.

U.S. Embassy officials frequently meet with representatives from Sunni, Shi'a, and various Christian groups. Intensive monitoring of religious issues has long been an embassy priority. Embassy officers have met with most of the leaders of the country's recognized Christian churches, along with representatives of various unrecognized faiths. Such meetings have afforded embassy officials the opportunity to learn the status and concerns of these groups.

Sources: U.S. State Department - Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor