- Freedom of religion in Kuwait
The Constitution provides for "absolute freedom" of belief and for freedom of religious practice in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals; however, the Government placed some limits on the right of free religious practice. The Constitution states that Islam is the state religion and that Shari'a (Islamic law) is a main source of legislation. Freedom of belief was respected and the Government did not intervene in worship services; however, non-Sunni Muslims found it difficult or impossible to attain legal permission to establish new places of worship. Regional events led to increased Sunni-Shi'a tensions during the period covered by this report, but did not translate into confrontation. Religious minorities experienced some discrimination as a result of governmental policies.
The country has an area of 6,880 square miles and a population of 3.2 million, of whom 1 million are citizens, and the rest foreign workers and their families. More than 100,000 stateless residents, known as "Bidoon," either have no documentation of their citizenship or are unwilling to disclose their nationality. Estimates derived from voting records and personal status documents indicate that 70 percent of citizens, including the ruling family, belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The national census did not distinguish between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims. Most of the remaining 30 percent of citizens are Shi'a Muslims. There are approximately 150 to 200 Christian citizens and a small number of Baha'i citizens. Some 100,000 of noncitizen residents are Shi'a. While some areas have relatively high concentrations of Sunnis or Shi'a, most areas of the country are fairly well integrated religiously.
The Christian population, comprised mostly of expatriates, is estimated to at be more than 400,000. The Christian community includes: the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church with approximately 100 members (several thousand other Christians also used the Anglican church for worship services); Armenian Orthodox Church with approximately 4,000 members; Coptic Orthodox Church with at least 65,000 members; Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church with approximately 1,000 to 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 more than 70 congregations serving approximately 40,000; and the Roman Catholic Church, with 2 official churches and a third worship facility in a rented house, with an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 members (Latin, Maronite, Coptic Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Malabar, and Malankara congregations all worshipped at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait City).
There are many other unrecognized Christian religious groups, although reliable estimates of their numbers are not available. 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 (400 adherents), Buddhists (100,000), Hindus (300,000), and Sikhs (10,000).
Protestant missionaries in the country serve non-Muslim congregations. The Government prohibits non-Muslims from proselytizing to Muslims, and there were no cases of foreign missionaries violating this prohibition.
tatus of religious freedom
Legal and policy framework
The Constitution provides for "absolute freedom" of belief and for freedom of religious practice in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals.
The Government exercises direct control of Sunni religious institutions, whose members account for the majority of citizens. For example, the Government appoints Sunni imams and monitors their Friday sermons and pays the salaries of mosque staff. The Government also finances the building of Sunni mosques. The Government does not exert this control over Shi'a mosques, and Shi'a fund their own mosques.
The 2006 Press and Publications Law specifically prohibits the publication of any material that attacks religious groups or incites persons to commit crimes, creates hatred, or spreads dissension among the public. The law increased the existing fines and jail sentences for those who publish material denigrating Islam. It also expanded the scope of what cannot be criticized to include the companions of the Prophet Muhammad. There are laws against blasphemy, apostasy, and proselytizing. While the number of incidents to which these laws apply is limited, the Government actively enforces them, especially the prohibition on non-Muslim proselytizing of Muslims.
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), the Municipality of Kuwait (for building permits and land concerns), and the Ministry of Interior (for security and police protection for places of worship). While reportedly there was no official Government list of recognized churches, seven Christian churches--National Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Coptic Orthodox, Roman Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox--had at least some form of official recognition enabling them to operate openly. These seven churches had open files at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, allowing them to bring in religious workers and staff to operate their churches, as well as guest lecturers and other visitors.
The procedures for registration and licensing of religious groups appear to be similar to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). There were hundreds of unlicensed, informal NGOs, clubs, and civic groups in the country. No religious group received official recognition during the period covered by this report, and unrecognized Christian groups perceived it as impossible to gain official recognition. They therefore worshiped at unofficial, private spaces or borrowed the worship spaces of existing groups. The Government did not interfere with such private gatherings.
In 2005 the Government completed the removal of all street-side Islamic charity boxes due to difficulty monitoring and confirming whether the funds were diverted to uses other than the stated charitable cause. The Charitable Organizations and Philanthropic Society Department of the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor (MOSAL) is responsible for regulating the activities of religious charities operating in the country, approving registration requests, and monitoring their day-to-day operations. Charities may collect cash only during the month of Ramadan using MOSAL-approved coupons. At other times, charities may collect funds through electronic transfers to MOSAL- and Central Bank of Kuwait-approved accounts directly registered to the charity.
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 emir on ways in which laws can be brought into better conformity with Shari'a, but it has no authority to enforce such changes. The Constitution states Shari'a is a main source of legislation.
The following Islamic holy days are considered national holidays: Islamic New Year, Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Ascension of the Prophet, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha. Most Christians attended church on Fridays and did not cite the inability to go on Sunday as a religious concern. Some workers are able to arrange with their employers to have time on Sunday for worship. Private employers can decide whether to give their non-Muslim employees time off for their holidays.
The Government requires Islamic religious instruction in public schools for all students. The Government also requires Islamic religious instruction in private schools that have one or more Muslim students.
The Government does not designate religion on passports or national identity documents.
Restrictions on religious freedom
Shi'a are free to worship according to their faith without government interference, and the overall situation for Shi'a remained stable during the reporting period; however, there were problems. Members of the Shi'a community have expressed concern over a past attack on a Shi'a mosque, as well as the relative scarcity of Shi'a mosques due to the Government's slow approval of the construction of new mosques and repair of existing ones. (There are 35 Shi'a mosques compared to more than 1,000 Sunni mosques in the country.) Since 2001 the Government has granted licenses for and has approved the construction of six new Shi'a mosques. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs reported that in the future Shi'a mosques would be built in new residential areas in sufficient numbers to serve the Shi'a populations who move into these areas.
There are hundreds of Shi'a husseiniyas (Shi'a community gathering places) in the country, most of which are informal or unlicensed. Generally, the country's husseiniyas are privately owned and associated with prominent Shi'a families. Some Shi'as expressed concern about a proposal by the Municipal Council to impose more stringent regulations on husseiniyas. The Municipal Council controls access to government land and has at times reportedly refused to grant land to non-Sunni Muslim religious institutions.
Shi'a who aspire to serve as imams (clergy) must seek training and education abroad (primarily in Iraq and Iran, and to a lesser degree in Syria), due to the lack of Shi'a jurisprudence courses at Kuwait University's College of Islamic Law. At the end of the period covered by this report, the Ministry of Education was reviewing a Shi'a application to establish a private college to train Shi'a clerics. Shi'a leaders called on the Ministry of Education to remove references from high school Islamic education textbooks specifically declaring some of their religious practices heretical. Sunni scholars author the books, which are entirely based on the Sunni interpretation of Islam. A governmental committee was formed to study the issue of removing references that are offensive to Shi'a Islam.
In 2006 one of the leading Shi'a imams in the country gave a Friday sermon that led Members of Parliament to demand that he be suspended. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs sent the imam a letter telling him to stop preaching. The imam continued preaching without government interference.
In 2004 the Government permitted Shi'a to stage a public reenactment of the Battle of Karbala depicting the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, Muhammad's grandson, but denied a Shi'a request during 2005. In 2006 the Government allowed and provided security for public celebrations, marches, and reenactments during Ashura, without giving official permits. The Government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches for the commemoration in 2007. The Government provided security to Shi'a neighborhoods, however, and allowed worshipers to gather peacefully in public spaces to participate in Ashura rituals.
Four Christian denominations are widely understood to enjoy full recognition by the Government and are allowed to operate as official churches: the Anglican Church, Coptic Orthodox, National Evangelical (Protestant), and Roman Catholic. These religious groups operated freely on their premises and held worship services without government interference. Their leaders also stated that the Government generally was supportive of their presence, providing police security and traffic control as needed. Other Christian denominations (including Indian Orthodox, Mar Thoma, Mormons, and Seventh-day Adventists) were not legally recognized but were allowed to operate in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of recognized churches. Members of these congregations reported that they were able to worship without government interference provided that they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing.
Churches outside of the four recognized denominations are prohibited from displaying exterior signs, including a cross or the congregation's name, or engaging in other public activities, such as ringing bells. Some churches without the financial resources to rent a location were able to gather in schools on the weekends, although representatives from the churches reported that the schools were pressured to stop allowing such gatherings.
The Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church had an open file at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor. Greek Catholics worshipped in a rented house (two other Indian Catholic denominations also used the house for worship services). In September 2005 there was an announcement that the Government had approved the Melkite Catholics' application for a plot of land to build a new church, although this decision had not been approved by all the relevant governmental institutions. After repeated delays, however, the Municipal Council rejected the Church's request outright. According to the Government, the application was rejected based on traffic concerns; however observers believe religious opposition to church-building was almost certainly the reason for refusal. The case could be appealed to the Council of Ministers (the cabinet), but bureaucratic delays during the reporting period prevented a final resolution of the case.
The Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox churches were allowed to operate openly, hire employees, invite religious speakers, and conduct other such activities without government interference; however, according to government records, their facilities were registered as private homes. They also rented facilities from private citizens for worship services and other religious purposes. However, this placed them in a vulnerable position if the owner stops renting, since it is difficult to find landlords willing to rent to religious groups.
The Government imposed quotas on the number of the clergy and staff the seven recognized religious groups could bring into the country. Most churches found the quotas insufficient. Most of the groups considered their existing facilities inadequate to serve their respective communities. They faced significant problems in trying to build new facilities.
There is no specific law banning the establishment of non-Muslim places of worship; however, in practice the few groups that applied for licenses to build new places of worship were denied permission. Some religious groups understood this to mean that it is impossible to gain a license for a new place of worship and have therefore been deterred from applying.
The Government actively supports Sunni Muslim proselytism and does not allow conversion away from Islam. While such conversions reportedly occur, they do so quietly and discreetly. Known converts faced 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 Government did not prosecute anyone for converting from Islam. A Muslim who converted from Islam would face legal problems in personal status and property matters before the courts.
The Government forbids non-Muslim missionaries from working in the country and places limits on the number of religious leaders allowed to work for the few churches that have legal status. Religious leaders of unrecognized groups must come as nonreligious workers and perform their religious duties outside their regular employment.
Kuwaiti law prohibits denigration of Islam, the Prophet Muhammad, and other Islamic religious figures.
The Government does not permit the establishment of non-Islamic religious publishing companies or training institutions for clergy. Nevertheless, several churches publish religious materials solely for their congregations' use. A private company, the Book House Company Ltd., was permitted to import Bibles and other Christian religious materials, including videotapes and compact discs, for use solely by government-recognized church congregations and as long as the materials do not insult Islam. The Book House Company Ltd. was the only company that had an import license to bring in such materials, which require approval by government censors.
There were reports of customs officials confiscating non-Islamic religious materials from private citizens upon their arrival at the airport. Some domestic workers reported that their employers confiscated religious articles such as Bibles and rosary beads, along with nonreligious items.
Bidoon (stateless) Arabs continued to face great difficulty in obtaining documents necessary to travel abroad, including for travel to participate in the Hajj. The Government declared in early 2006 and again in 2007 that it would facilitate the obtaining of travel documents by Bidoon but did not do so.
Shi'a remained underrepresented in upper levels of government. In 2006 4 Shi'a were elected to the 50-member National Assembly, compared with 5 Shi'a in the previous assembly and 6 in the assembly before that. A new cabinet was formed in March 2007 after the resignation of the entire cabinet. The new Prime Minister retained one of the two Shi'a ministers from the previous cabinet, although with a new portfolio, and added another Shi'a. There were no known Shi'a in the Kuwait State Security (KSS) forces, and they were reportedly underrepresented in the National Guard. Many Shi'a complained of a "glass ceiling" that prevents them from obtaining leadership positions. While such complaints were credible, they stem more from the decisions of individuals than a coordinated government policy.
Personal status law is administered through religious courts, and 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. 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 issues. However, the court had not yet been established, according to an informed Shi'a government official, because it was unable to identify sufficiently qualified Shi'a judges.
The Government approved another long-standing Shi'a request for the establishment of an independent Shi'a Waqf, an agency to administer religious endowments. The Shi'a Waqf was able to carry out its work freely, and the Government sponsored a conference on Ja'fari Waqf matters in March 2007.
Members of religious groups not sanctioned in the Qur'an, such as Baha'is, Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, may not build places of worship or other religious facilities. Unrecognized religious groups are allowed to worship privately in their homes without government interference.
The Sikh community was able to worship freely in private homes. In past years they had used a rented apartment designated for worship, but the building was destroyed for reasons unrelated to the Sikhs' presence. The community reported that it had not been able to find another landlord willing to rent them a space to be used for religious purposes. They were unable to gain permission for a crematorium to cremate their deceased. Sikhs engaged in other religious activities, including public marriage and other celebrations, without government interference.
The law prohibits organized religious education for religious groups other than Islam, although this law was 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 Catholic Church to permit Catholic students in certain private schools to study the Catechism separately during the period allotted for instruction in Islam.
In 2005 the National Evangelical Church requested a license for its school, which it has operated for several decades. After receiving approval from numerous governmental bodies, the Church's request was denied by the Municipal Council in 2006 amid erroneous media reports that the Church planned to take over a historic site for the school and use it for proselytizing. Press statements by Municipal Council members suggested the request was refused on ideological grounds rather than on zoning or other technical grounds. The Church did not pursue the license during the reporting period because it believed the Municipal Council was set against licensing of the school for ideological reasons.
The Catholic Church faced severe overcrowding at its two official church facilities. Its cathedral in downtown Kuwait City regularly drew tens of thousands of worshippers to its more than 20 weekly services in several languages. Due to limited space on the compound, the Church was unable to construct any new buildings. The National Evangelical Church, which served a weekly average of 20,000 worshippers in more than 70 congregations, was also significantly overcrowded. The Church wanted more land to build a new church but did not made an official request.
The Coptic Orthodox Church reported that it had excellent relations with the Government and faced no difficulties in bringing church workers and guests into the country. The Government was extremely cooperative in providing permits to erect tents on adjacent lots to handle the crowds during Christian holidays. The Church's main challenge was the overcrowding at its small compound facility in Kuwait City. The Government determined it would have to demolish the church building to make way for a new road but granted the Church 6,500 square meters of land in Hawally district to build a new place of worship; however, it did not offer any financial assistance to construct the new church. Construction began in the first quarter of 2006, and the Church expected construction to be completed in 2009. The Church agreed to move to a temporary facility when the road project began. When the Government proposed a temporary facility in the Kheitan neighborhood, Islamist politicians and writers and local residents complained vociferously. The Government decided to work around the church building until the new facility is completed and the old one can be demolished.
The Government prohibits missionaries from proselytizing among Muslims; however, they may serve non-Muslim congregations.
The Government controls the content delivered by imams and preachers, who must sign a "mosque compact" detailing their commitment to stay within certain boundaries in their sermons. The Government banned a prominent Sunni imam from giving Friday sermons after he commented on politics in July 2006. The initial ban was for 3 months but was suspended after discussions between the imam and the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs. The Government especially clamped down on preachers at unlicensed mosques and those who commented too directly on politics, relieving 20 imams of their duties in August 2006. Some Salafis complained that the preachers relieved of their duties by the Government were almost exclusively Salafis.
In April 2006 and again in April 2007, the Government banned a number of books from an Islamic book festival organized by the Social Reform Society, a religiously conservative NGO affiliated with the Kuwaiti branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. The banned books were authored by or contained the writings of individuals associated with the Wahhabi/Salafi movement in Islam.
The Islam Presentation Committee (IPC), under the authority of the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, actively encouraged proselytizing Islam to non-Muslims. The IPC maintained an office at the Central Prison to provide religious education and information to inmates and reportedly extended its proselytizing efforts to embassies that shelter foreign workers facing problems. An NGO that receives governmental financial support to obtain the early release of nonviolent offenders also proselytized in the prisons.
Although there was a small community of approximately 150 to 200 acknowledged Christian citizens, a 1980 law prohibits the naturalization of non-Muslims. Christian citizens 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 continued to experience legal and social discrimination. In the family courts (i.e. those controlled by religious bodies), 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.
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.
The law requires jail terms for journalists who defame any religion. Academic freedom is limited in practice by self-censorship. Academics and 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.
In late 2006 the Ministry of Education claimed to have uncovered a large number of secondary school students engaged in devil worship. The Government did not provide details of what, if any, actions it took.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees in the country.
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. There have been cases in which U.S. citizen children have been prevented from returning to the United States; however, there were no reports that such children were forced to convert to Islam, or that forced conversion was the reason the children were not allowed to return to the United States.
There have been past examples of anti-Semitic rhetoric in Government-sponsored education curriculum, such as citing Qur'anic verses to denounce the political intentions of the Jewish persons, specifically in reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
There were incidents of unofficial anti-Semitic commentary from media pundits and some mosque preachers. In the summer of 2006, in the context of the Lebanese-Israeli crisis, a Member of Parliament publicly launched an attack on Jews in which he cited the libelous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
Government officials promoted interfaith understanding by meeting with Shi'a, Sunni, and Christian leaders to improve respect for religious freedom. The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs expanded the work of its "moderation" initiative. In September 2006 the Ministry opened the World Moderation Center, a body focused on fostering toleration and moderation within Islam as well as showing Islam as a tolerant and moderate faith to the non-Muslim world. The moderation initiative's activities included conferences, lectures, a public relations campaign to spread moderation, mandatory training for Kuwaiti imams, and the publication of monographs devoted to emphasizing Islam's tolerance and moderation.
Interfaith dialogue took place among Christian denominations through the framework of a council representing Christian leaders from various churches and numerous informal meetings.
In the June 2006 elections, an openly declared atheist ran for Parliament on a platform of separating church and state. She was not subject to any restrictions or harassment.
During late 2006 and early 2007, sectarian tensions increased somewhat, in part reflecting regional sectarian violence. A number of officials from the ruling family and the Government publicly called for calm and regularly proclaimed the equality of Sunni and Shi'a citizens.
ocietal abuses and discrimination
In general, citizens were open and tolerant of other religious groups; however, there was a minority of ultraconservatives who oppose the presence of non-Muslim groups in the country and reject the legitimacy of Muslims of other sects than their own.
While some discrimination based on religion reportedly occurred on a personal level, most observers agreed that it was neither systematic nor widespread. There was a perception among some domestic employees and members of the unskilled labor force that there would be better treatment from employers as well as from society as a whole if they converted to Islam. Cases supporting these claims were reported during the reporting period; however, most workers did not feel undue pressure to convert to Islam.
Some church officials reported that domestic workers complained of not being allowed to leave their homes by their employers, thus making it impossible for them to worship with their congregations.
During Ramadan 2006 a Shi'a minister sparked controversy by handing out a book of prayers to Parliament members that contained a remark in the introduction deemed offensive to Sunni Muslims. Some conservatives called for the establishment of a committee to enforce standards of public action based on a specific interpretation of Islam.
During the period covered by this report, there was continued debate over whether it was proper for Muslims to wish non-Muslims well on their holidays. While a small number of conservatives opposed the practice, most found no problem with it, and none of the many Kuwaiti stores that had Christmas-themed displays reported negative incidents.
Pope Benedict XVI's quote of a fourteenth-century Byzantine emperor who disparaged the Prophet Muhammad triggered controversy and vociferous condemnations in the public sphere, but most Christians reported little or no animosity from Muslims on a personal level. An unknown group printed and circulated a virulently anti-Christian brochure in response to the Pope's remarks.
In December 2006 a parliamentarian criticized a state-run orphanage for accepting Christmas gifts and hanging Christmas greetings during a visit by a U.S. Army delegation. Many Kuwaitis criticized the parliamentarian for his intolerant views.
Many if not most retail stores boycotted Danish products because of controversial cartoons published in a private Danish newspaper in 2005. The boycott had weakened significantly by the end of the reporting period.
Some Shi'a government employees reportedly had more difficulty in appointments in certain Government agencies; however, two Shi'a ministers were appointed in the February 2006, July 2006, and March 2007 cabinets.
Religion in Kuwait
Human rights in Kuwait
* United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. [http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2007/90214.htm Kuwait: International Religious Freedom Report 2007] . "This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the
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