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Reports on Religious Freedom: Kuwait


The constitution provides for freedom of religion, however, 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." Islam is the state religion. 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. The Government approved the construction of three new Shi'a mosques. An Apostalic Nunciature was established in the country 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 in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country's total area is 6,880 square miles, and its population is 2.25 million. Of the country's total population, approximately 1.6 million persons are Muslim, including the vast majority of its 855,000 citizens. The remainder of the overall population consists of the large foreign labor force and approximately 70,000 Arabs with residence ties to Kuwait who claim to have no documentation of their nationality. While the national census does not distinguish between Sunni and Shi'a adherents, the ruling family and many prominent families belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The total Sunni Muslim population is well over 1 million, approximately 525,000 of whom are citizens. The remaining 30 to 40 percent of Muslim citizens (approximately 250,000-350,000) are Shi'a, as are approximately 100,000 noncitizen residents. 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 100,000 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 70,000 members; and the Greek Catholic (Eastern Rite) Church, whose membership totals are unavailable. In September 2001, the diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Kuwait were upgraded to ambassadorial status.

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

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, 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." Islam is the state religion. The Constitution states that Shari'a is "a main source of legislation." The Government observes Islamic holidays.

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 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 claim that these procedures are purposely kept vague by the Government 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. After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Government announced in October 2001 that all unlicensed branches of Islamic charities would be closed by the end of 2002. In August 2002, the Acting Minister of Social Affairs and Labor issued a ministerial decree to create a charitable organizations department within the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. The new department will regulate Kuwaiti based religious charities by reviewing their applications for registration, monitor the operations of charities, and establish a new accounting system to comply with regulations of charity based operations.

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 expressed concern 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. (There are approximately 36 Shi'a mosques, compared to 1,300 Sunni mosques, in the country.) During the period covered by this report, the Government continued to address these concerns by approving the construction of three new Shi'a mosques. The Shi'a appellate court for family law cases and the Shi'a charity authority established in 2001 reportedly are operating smoothly.

Shi'a leaders also have claimed 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 courses. 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.

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) are not recognized legally, but 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.

In January 2002, after mounting pressure from Kuwaiti residents in the district of Salwa, the Government ordered the closure of the Sikh temple, Gurudwara. Sikhs who worshipped in Gurudwara temple must now worship at another Sikh temple.

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.

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. Due to limited space on the compound, the church is unable to construct any new buildings.

The Government recently notified the Coptic Church of its intention to reacquire the parcel of land on which the country's only Coptic church is located for a road project, which will begin in 2 years. The Government plans to grant the Church a land parcel of equal or greater size in the same general vicinity to relocate the church, but it has not guaranteed financial assistance to construct a new church.

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 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 is not required 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 law requires jail terms for journalists who ridicule religion. There were no reports during the period covered by this report of Islamists using this law to threaten writers with prosecution for publishing opinions deemed insufficiently observant of Islamic norms as had occurred in the past, nor were there any instances of religiously based prosecutions of authors or journalists.

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, 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 approved the construction of three new Shi'a mosques in addition to the three that were approved in 2001, bringing the total to 36 Shi'a mosques in the country. The Government is currently considering a request to establish a Shi'a "Supreme Court" to handle matters of family law. Shi'a leaders no longer express concern that proposed legislation in the National Assembly does not take their beliefs into account.

An Apostolic Nunciature (Vatican embassy), headed by an Apostolic Nuncio (Ambassador), accredited to Kuwait, Bahrain, and Yemen, was upgraded from charge d'affaires to full ambassadorial status in September 2001, to represent Vatican interests in the region. The Vatican Ambassador is resident in Kuwait City. The Catholic Church views the Government's agreement to upgrade to full diplomatic relations with the Vatican as significant in terms of government tolerance of Christianity.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

In general there are amicable relations among the various religions, and citizens generally are open and tolerant of other religions, although 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 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 such conversions reportedly have occurred, they have been done quietly and discreetly. Muslim conversions that become public are likely to cause hostility within society.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

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