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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." The Constitution states that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a (Islamic law) is "a main source of legislation."

There was no major change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report; however, construction proceeded on three new Shi'a mosques approved in 2001 and an Apostalic Nunciature 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 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 2.4 million. Of the country's total population, approximately 1.6 million persons are Muslim, including the vast majority of its nearly 900,000 citizens. The remainder of the overall population consists of the large foreign labor force and tens of thousands of "Bidoon" (officially stateless) Arabs with residence ties to the country who claim to have no documentation of their nationality. While the national census does not distinguish between Sunni and Shi'a adherents, the majority of citizens, including the ruling family, belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The total Sunni Muslim population is well over 1 million approximately 600,000 of whom are citizens. The remaining 30 to 35 percent of Muslim citizens (approximately 270,000-315,000) are Shi'a, as are approximately 100,000 non-citizen 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 (Latin, Maronite, Greek Catholic, Coptic Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Malabar, and Malankara congregations worship at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait city); the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, with 115 members (several thousand other Christians also 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 in Arabic as the "Roman Orthodox" Church, a reference to the Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium), 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, 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 communities of Hindus (estimated 100,000 adherents), Sikhs (estimated 10,000), Baha'is (estimated 400), and Buddhists (no statistics available).

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." The Constitution states Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a (Islamic law) is "a main source of legislation and 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. Three of the country's churches are widely understood to enjoy "full recognition" by the Government and are allowed to operate compounds officially designated as churches: The Catholic Church, the Anglican Church, and the National Evangelical Protestant Church of Kuwait; however, they face quotas on the number of staff they can bring in, and their existing facilities are clearly inadequate to serve their respective communities.

The other four churches--Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Greek Catholicism--reportedly are allowed to operate openly, hire employees, invite religious speakers, etc., 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 (NGOs), 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 NGOs 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. The Government announced in October 2001 that all unlicensed branches of Islamic charities would be closed by the end of 2002. During the period covered by this report, the Government removed a large number of unlicensed streetside charity boxes. 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 has been established with the mandate to 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.

The following religious holidays are considered national holidays: Eid al-Adha, Islamic New Year, Prophet's Birthday, and Eid al-Fitr.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

Shi'a are free to worship according to their faith 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, no additional Shi'a mosques were guaranteed beyond the three approved for construction in 2001. The Shi'a appellate court for family law cases and the Shi'a charity authority established in 2001 reportedly are operating smoothly. The Government did not, however, approve the Shi'a request for their own Awqaf.

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. The Ministry of Education is still 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, 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. Their 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 citizens in the district of Salwa, the Government ordered the closure of the Sikh gurudwara, or temple. Sikhs who had worshipped there were still able to worship at another Sikh temple. During the period covered by this report, the closed temple was allowed to reopen.

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. During the period covered by this report, the Government still had not responded 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 National Evangelical Church also faces overcrowding at its compound, which serves a weekly average of 20,000 worshippers in 55 congregations.

There has been no change in the status of the Coptic Church since the Government notified it last year of its intention to appropriate the parcel of land on which the country's only Coptic church is located for a road project. 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 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, a married woman who applies for a passport must obtain her husband's 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 defame 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 of religiously based prosecutions of authors or journalists.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversions

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.

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 3 new Shi'a mosques in addition to the 3 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. The Government now allows Shi'a to follow their own jurisprudence in matters of personal status at the first instance and appellate levels, but not yet at the cassation level. Shi'a leaders no longer express concern that proposed legislation in the National Assembly does not take their beliefs into account.

An Apostolic Nunciature, headed by an Apostolic Nuncio, 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. The Ministry of Education has announced its intention to combat religious intolerance by clarifying the concept of "jihad" in school curricula; this initiative encountered strong condemnation from Islamist members of parliament. During the year, the Ministry removed teachers thought to be Islamic extremists.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

In general there are amicable relations among the various religions, 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 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. Known converts face harassment, including loss of job, repeated summonses to police stations, and imposition of fines without due process.

In May the Awqaf Minister advised Kuwait's imams "not to pray against Christians." In response, however, some Muslim leaders argued that it is the duty of Muslims to foster hatred for Christians and Jews. While some individuals incite hatred for Christians and Jews, in general the society is peaceful and tolerant. Hostility towards Israel is pervasive, but typically comes with a disavowal of hostility towards the Jewish religion. After Kuwaiti Al-Qaeda sympathizers murdered a Marine in October, mainstream Muslim leaders made efforts to teach that Islam forbids such acts and prescribes peaceful relations. During the period covered by this report, on several occasions local newspapers have published photographs of Christian worship in Kuwait, in a factual, non-critical manner.

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