U.S. Department of State Annual Report on International Religious Freedom for 1999 - Kuwait

Section I. Freedom of Religion

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."

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. Nevertheless, in reality 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 Kuwaiti Municipality (for building permits). While there reportedly is no official government "list" of recognized churches, seven Christian churches have at least some sort 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 run 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 (which includes two separate churches), the Anglican Church, and the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait (Protestant). The other four churches reportedly are allowed to operate openly, hire employees, invite religious speakers, etc., all without interference from the Government, but their compounds are, according to government records, registered only as private homes. The churches 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. All other churches and religions have no legal status but 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, but this order has never 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 so far the Government has not responded to their requests.

Among a total population of 2.2 million, approximately 1.5 million persons are Muslim, including the vast majority of the 750,000 citizens. The remainder of the overall population consists of the large foreign labor force and over 100,000 stateless persons, most of whom are Muslim. The ruling family and many prominent families belong to the Sunni branch of Islam. The total Sunni Muslim population is approximately 1 million, 500,000 of whom are citizens. The remaining 30 to 40 percent of Muslim residents (approximately 500,000) are Shi'a, 250,000 of whom are citizens. Estimates of the nominal Christian population range from 250,000 to 500,000 (including approximately 400 citizens).

The Christian community consists of the Roman Catholic Diocese, with two 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 three main congregations (Arabic, English, and Indian) 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.

Leaders of these churches have stated that they are satisfied with the state of religious freedom, and describe the Government as "tolerant" and "open." They are able to 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 direction as needed.

There are many other Christian denominations in the country, with tens of thousands of members, which, 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. These denominations include Seventh-Day Adventist, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Marthoma, and the Indian Orthodox Syrian Church.

Similarly, members of religions not sanctioned in the Koran, such as Hindus (50,000 members), Sikhs (10,000), Baha'is (400), and Buddhists, may not build places of worship but are allowed to worship privately in their homes without interference from the Government.

Shi'a are free to conduct their traditional forms of worship without government interference. However, members of the Shi'a community claim that the Government has not approved the construction of Shi'a mosques in recent years.

The Government prohibits missionaries from proselytizing among 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" periodically visit public and private schools outside of church compounds to ensure that no religious teaching other than Islam takes place.

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 Co., Ltd., is permitted to import significant amounts of Bibles and other religious materials for use solely among the congregations of the country's recognized Christian churches. The Book House Co. 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 Kuwait. 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.

There was no change in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report.

There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.

There were no reports of the forced religious conversions 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.

Section II. Societal Attitudes

In general, there are amicable relations among the different religions, and citizens generally are open and tolerant of other religions. Nevertheless, there is a minority of ultraconservatives opposed to the presence of non-Muslim groups. There have been reports of minor vandalism against at least two of the country's recognized Christian churches.

While some discrimination based on religion reportedly occurs on a personal level, most observers agree that it is not widespread. Others claim that, in some cases, religious "discrimination" works to the advantage of non-Muslims. For example, some local Muslim employers are said to prefer Christian employees.

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

There were no known significant incidents involving interreligious violence; however, there were reports of minor vandalism of some Christian facilities. There were incidents of violence within certain groups, including an ongoing struggle within the Arab congregation of the National Evangelical Church. The dispute reportedly is rooted in a doctrinal disagreement and involves a struggle for control and management of the Church. In January 1999, this dispute led to a violent altercation at the Church, which was widely covered in the local press. In April 1999, three alleged members of the Salafi order of Sunni Islam beat a Kuwait University professor and fellow Salafi in what was reported to be a case of vigilante justice intended to punish the professor for alleged religious transgressions. The incident was widely covered in the local press.

During the period covered by this report, some Christian churches reportedly formed ecumenical groups designed to increase understanding among the country's Christians. However, these groups are said to be strictly informal.

Section III. U.S. Government Policy

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, along with representatives of various unrecognized faiths. Such meetings have afforded embassy officials the opportunity to learn the status and concerns of these groups. The Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the overall context of the promotion of human rights.

The Annual Report to Congress on International Religious Freedom describes the status of religious freedom in each foreign country, and government policies violating religious belief and practices of groups, religious denominations and individuals, and U.S. policies to promote religious freedom around the world. It is submitted in compliance with P.L. 105-292 (105th Congress) and is cited as the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

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