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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. 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."

There was some improvement in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report, particularly for the country's Shi'a. The Government licensed the construction of three new Shi'a mosques. It overturned a decision by the municipality of Kuwait to deny the Government-approved construction of a mosque in the Al-Qurain area (approval had been pending for 9 years). The Government also resolved two longstanding Shi'a concerns by creating a Shi'a appellate court to try family law cases and approving the creation of a Shi'a charity authority comparable to the Sunni Awqaf (Ministry of Islamic Affairs) and nongovernmental entities. The Government prohibits proselytizing of Muslims and prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims.

The generally amicable relationship among religions in society contributed to religious freedom.

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. Religious Demography

The country's total land area is 6,880 square miles and its population is 2.2 million. Of the country's total population, approximately 1.5 million persons are Muslim, including the vast majority of its 820,000 citizens. The remainder of the overall population consists of the large foreign labor force and nearly 100,000 Arabs with residence ties to Kuwait who claim to have no documentation of their nationality. The ruling family and many prominent families belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The total Sunni Muslim population is over 1 million, about 525,000 of whom are citizens. The remaining 30 to 40 percent of Muslim residents (approximately 550,000) are Shi'a, nearly 300,000 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 includes 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 adherents), Sikhs (10,000), Baha'is (400), and Buddhists (no statistics available).

There are no available statistics on the number of atheists.

Missionary groups in the country serve non-Muslim congregations.

Section II: Status of Religious Freedom

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 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. 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). While there reportedly is no official government "list" of recognized churches, seven Christian churches have at least some form 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 operate 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 (both the Roman Catholic Church and the Maronite Church), the Anglican Church, and the National Evangelical Protestant Church of Kuwait. The Roman Catholic Church faces problems of overcrowding at its two official church facilities. Its cathedral in downtown Kuwait City regularly draws as many as 100,000 worshippers to its more than 30 weekly services.

The other four churches reportedly are allowed to operate openly, hire employees, invite religious speakers, etc., all without interference from the Government; however, their compounds are, according to government records, registered only as private homes. Church officials 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. No other churches and religions have legal status but they 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 never has 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 responded to their requests.

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 slow approval of the construction of new Shi'a mosques and the repair of existing mosques, or of its failure to approve such construction or repair at all. The community was particularly critical in May 2000 when the municipality of Kuwait 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 still are 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.) During the period covered by the report, the Government began to address such concerns by approving the construction of three new Shi'a mosques. The Government resolved two other longstanding Shi'a concerns by creating a Shi'a appellate court to try family law cases (Shi'a and Sunni family law differ in some details) and by approving the creation of a Shia charity authority comparable to the Sunni Awqaf (which formerly controlled all government and private donations to religious charities).

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, which only offers Sunni jurisprudence. However, to address this longstanding concern the Ministry of Education currently is reviewing an application to establish a private college to train Shi'a clerics within the country. If approved the new college could reduce Shi'a dependence on foreign study, particularly in Iran, for the training of Shi'a clerics. Shi'a reportedly no longer express 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 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 control 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 from the Awqaf Ministry periodically visit public and private schools outside of church compounds to ensure that religious teaching other than Islam does not takes place. The Roman Catholic Church has requested that Catholic students be allowed to study the catechism separately during the period in which Muslim students receive mandatory instruction in Islam. The Government did not respond to the request during the period covered by this report.

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 a significant number 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 the country. 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.

Women continue to experience legal and social discrimination. In the family courts, one man's testimony is sometimes given the same weight as the testimony of two women; however, in the civil, criminal, and administrative courts, the testimony of women and men is considered equally. Unmarried women 21 years old and over are free to obtain a passport and travel abroad at any time. However, married women who apply for passports must obtain their husbands' signature on the application form. 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 contacting the immigration authorities and placing a 24-hour travel ban on her. After this 24-hour period, a court order is required if the husband still wishes to prevent his wife from leaving the country. All minor children must have their father's permission to travel outside of the country.

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.

The joint interministerial committee formed by the Government in 2000 to study ways to control extremist groups reported no findings during the period covered by this report.

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. However, there were no instances in the period covered by this report of religiously based prosecutions of authors or journalists. In January 2000, the Court of Misdemeanors found two female 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. In March 2000, an 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.

A Vatican mission, headed by a Charge d'Affaires, has been established in the country to represent Vatican interests in the Gulf states and Yemen. The Charge d'Affaires moved into permanent offices during the period covered in this report. The Catholic Church views the Government's acquiescence to establish relations with the Vatican as significant in terms of government tolerance of Christianity.

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 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.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect For Religious Freedom

The overall situation for Shi'a improved during the period covered by this report. The Government licensed the construction of three new mosques. It also overturned a decision by the municipality of Kuwait to deny the government-approved construction of a mosque in the Al-Qurain area. In addition the Government took steps toward greater equality for Shi'a by creating a distinct appellate court to try Shi'a family law cases and by agreeing to establish an independent Shi'a charity authority to manage Shi'a donations.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

In general, there are amicable relations among the various 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.

In April 2000, the Government arrested seven men for allegedly beating a 19-year-old woman for not wearing a "hijab" (head scarf). The Government acted quickly in bringing the seven men to trial, criticizing the assault as a vigilante action by extremists. The case prompted a lively debate in society and the press. Most citizens expressed outrage, viewing the attack as a direct assault on their personal freedoms, while Islamists urged against making hasty judgments. Conflicting versions of what exactly occurred and the motives involved emerged during the trial, and the criminal court acquitted all seven accused men in June, finding that there was insufficient evidence to convict them. In November 2000, the Court of Appeals overturned the acquittal of five of the seven men, and sentenced four to 1 year in prison and $6,000 (2,000 dinars) each in compensatory damages. The fifth man was ordered to pay $3,000 (1,000 dinars) with no jail term.

Also in April 2000, 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. There were no reports of such shootings during the period covered by this report.

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 of 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 cause hostility within society, as demonstrated by a 1996 case in which the convert received death threats.

Section IV. 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, as well as 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