Some 264 Kuwaiti Christians live in Kuwait to date
BY Abdullah Alelyan
It is rare for anyone to speak of non-Muslim minorities who are citizens of the Arab Gulf states. The homogeneous Muslim fabric of this oil-rich region remains the only media-portrayed image which the world sees.
In 2008, Houda Nonoo was appointed as Bahrain’s ambassador to Washington. The news could have passed unnoticed, had Nonoo not only been Jewish, but also a Bahraini citizen. In fact, she was the first Arab Jew to be appointed as an ambassador there, causing an air of excitement back home as her assignment shocked many in the West. After all, the only non-Muslim residents of the Gulf Cooperation Council states, GCC, are supposed to be migrant workers!
Perhaps the poor media coverage of minorities in the GCC is mainly due to the group seeing themselves as citizens first, and their respective societies don’t treat them any differently. That is the case of Kuwait’s Christian citizens according to Kuwaiti Christians themselves.
“Christian citizens share the same rights and duties as Muslim citizens in Kuwait. Our rights and duties as Kuwaiti citizens are guaranteed in all fields because the Constitution does not discriminate against us,” said Reverend Emmanuel Benjamin Gharib, Chairman of the National Evangelical Church in Kuwait and Pastor of the Kuwait Presbyterian Church.
According to congregation members, there are close to 270 Christian Kuwaitis who live and work in Kuwait. Not exactly a large number, but a thriving society of merchants and professionals nonetheless, among nearly 1.3 million Kuwaitis.
Most of Kuwait’s Christian citizens originally arrived in the kingdom towards the end of the 19th century, from Saudi Arabia, the Levant, Turkey and Iraq, according to official records.
Overall, there are half a million Christians in Kuwait who hail from various nationalities and who are served by eight churches and villas that are rented for worship. As the number of churches is lower than what is needed to serve the masses, several requests have been made to relevant authorities to allocate plots of land to build churches for the increasing number of Christians. But the requests remain under study by the relevant authorities.
“We hope to hear good news … while we continue to enjoy practicing our beliefs freely,” said Gharib.
Not only do Christian Kuwaitis enjoy the freedom to practice their beliefs in their homeland, migrant Christians in the country share these practices too.
George Adel, an Egyptian Christian, who works for a Kuwaiti company, said he had long heard about Kuwait and its respect for freedom of belief. However, he was afraid to work there because he was a Christian.
“I was afraid because my name would call me out as a Christian. I was very worried … but when I went there for the first time, I was relieved to see how friendly the company, employees and clients were,” he added. All of his misconceptions all changed when he got in contact with Kuwaitis and started sharing their celebrations.
“We would sit to one table during Ramadan [Islamic month of fasting] gatherings, irrespective of anyone’s religion, and that is an authentic Kuwaiti tradition …. All those years going to church in Kuwait, I did not face any difficulty or harassment, contrary to what I had expected,” he added.
The fact that there were Muslim citizens who took part in Christian social events and shared the joys and grief of their Christian brothers, gave Reverend Gharib the idea of setting a day for a diwaniyah in the church.
In Kuwait, ‘the diwaniyah’ is a place where people gather to learn about each other’s news and discuss different issues. According to congregation members, discussions usually cover sports, politics and social life.
People of all ideologies meet at the diwaniyah every week. However nothing but citizenship prevails. A Christian would sit next to a Muslim, and a Shiite next to a Sunni, without any problem, and that is “something the Kuwaiti society is known for,” said Gharib.
Kuwait’s media usually covers Christian-related events such as Christmas celebrations, as well as church related issues. In fact, when Reverend Gharib was appointed back in 1999, most media outlets in the country covered the news in broad headlines.
Political and Civil Rights
Kuwaiti Christians further deny rumors that the community is barred from enjoying certain civil and political rights, including the right to run for or vote in parliamentary elections. They all stressed that the law is explicit and forbids discrimination on religious grounds.
Kuwaiti MP Rakan Al Nessef told Newsweek Middle East that Christian Kuwaitis have the same rights and duties as their Muslim counterparts. “There’s no disagreement on that,” he said.
These rights are preserved by Kuwait’s Constitution, which stipulates that all people “are equal in human dignity.”
Nessef explained that “the Kuwaiti Constitution does not discriminate between Muslim or Christian citizens based on faith. Today there are no laws that stand in the face of Christians.”
“We refer to it when faced with big or small issues. The Constitution represents a nation and not a certain category of people. It represents all Kuwaiti citizens, and it safeguards the dignity of all people,” said Gharib.
Despite the fact that there is nothing banning a Christian citizen from assuming a political post in the country, yet Kuwait’s parliament and cabinet have no Christian representation.
When asked whether there should be a certain quota for a Christian representation in the parliament or even a ministerial post in the cabinet, MP Nessef replied: “I see the quota system as unconstitutional. When we talk about dignity and that all people are equal, then that quota constitutes a discrimination in itself.”
Gharib, who is the first GCC Arab national to head a Protestant church, agrees to that. “We exercise our right to vote. Actually one [Christian] had previously run in the past elections, but he later withdrew from the race for private reasons,” he said.
Furthermore, “there are many [Christians] in the foreign service and there is nothing to stop them from assuming public office,” Rev. Gharib explained.
Fear of Terrorists’ Backlash
Following the bombing of Al Imam Al Sadiq Mosque in Kuwait in June, Kuwait’s Interior Ministry deployed personnel to protect places of worship due to the security situation in the country. The deadly blast, which claimed the lives of 27 people and injured over 200, was adopted by the infamous terrorist group Daesh.
But Kuwait’s Christians deny that they ever felt unwelcomed in their own country. They insist that they enjoy good relations with everyone.
No matter what, Kuwaitis “remain faithful to their homeland” and wouldn’t leave according to Gharib, who denied any local or foreign attempts pushing Christian Kuwaitis away from Kuwait.
“We always organize gatherings attended by political and social figures. There is a lot of harmony here. Our ties as citizens in this country are strong and we are bonded by blood and spirit. Kuwait is a country for all,” he added.