KUWAIT: On Saturday evenings, Muslims and Christians, of different nationalities and backgrounds, nonchalantly sit together in the Diwaniya of the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait (NECK) to chit chat, laugh, and discuss current political, social or economic issues, while sipping teas and munching on snacks, said Kuwaiti Reverent Emanuel B Ghareeb.
“I only built this Diwaniya a local term for reception hall because my Muslim Kuwaiti friends asked me to have a place of my own for them to visit as an exchange of social courtesy to all the visits I paid to their Diwaniyas,” the ever-smiling Pastor of NECK said.
“Religion was not an issue growing up. We played together, ate together, even napped together during pre-school years,” the 66-year old Kuwaiti Reverend said while walking around the compound of his Church, whose land was first purchased by the American Mission to build a hospital for men in 1914. I remember my mother telling me that she wore ‘Abbaya,’ a black traditional loose over-garment when she came to the country back in 1945. My mother was not Muslim. However, she wore it out of respect and because she was part of that community,” recalled Rev Ghareeb, whose Protestant Church was built in 1931.
He reminisced that during Ramadan, the Muslims month of fasting, his mother used to cook food and send it over to her Muslim neighbors, as they were about to break their fast at the end of the day. The Muslims neighbors similarly reciprocated.
The Reverend stressed that despite turbulences that have taken place in the country, making a reference to the Iraqi invasion of 1990 and the Shiite Mosque explosion of 2015, the Kuwaiti people always come together regardless of their race or religion.
He added that in order to build a stronger society against the odds, the Islamic Christian Relations Council was established in 2009. It consists of a number of Christian and Islamic figures to promote peaceful dialogue and enhance good Muslim-Christian relations.
On the other side of the spectrum, Wasatiya (Mediation) Center, an offshoot of the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, was established in 2004 after an American soldier was murdered by a Kuwaiti youth.
“The center plays a mediator role among different religions. It strives to combat religious extremism and spreads religious tolerance and acceptance” Secretary-General of the center’s higher committee Engineer Farid Emadi said.
The center addresses the youth; it encourages them to join workshops, cultural events and awareness campaigns that call for adopting moderate way of thinking and taking up a tolerant behavior towards the other, he added.
Religious intolerance has no room here because each individual, regardless of their backgrounds, plays an integral role in the development of this country. The Kuwaiti constitution itself guarantees religious freedom for everyone, he said.
Even though the Kuwaiti constitution stipulates that Islam is the state’s religion and Islamic law is a main source of legislation, yet it “provides for ‘absolute freedom’ of belief. The constitution guarantees freedom of religious practice only if it is in accordance with established customs and does not conflict with public order or morals.”
“There are no problems in the relationship between Christians and Muslims in Kuwait. They live together, work together and everyone is in his house with his family, and belongs to his own community … I never heard a Christian cursing Muslims,” the Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia’s Bishop Camillo Ballin said.
He further said that Kuwaiti Christians are not discriminated against “socially nor politically.” They enjoy every aspect of their social life as much as that of their political activities; they can vote and run for the National Assembly.
The Christian life has kept moving forward and the number of Christians has kept growing to reach the thousands, yet ” there is a problem,” Bishop Ballin said alarmingly. “The number of the churches are the same of the past. Our churches were built 50 or 60 years ago, when the Christians were few.”
The first Church of Our Lady of Arabia in Ahmadi was built in 1956 as a gift from Kuwait Oil Company. A year later, late Amir Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah granted the church a land to build a Cathedral in Kuwait City, where it still stands nowadays.
Of course, building communities and providing for their needs are not as easy as walking in the park. Nowadays, the Christians need “more space” to accommodate their need and activities, Bishop Ballin voiced out. There is an inadequate worship space and difficulties in securing lands for new facilities.
Being part of the main, it is inevitable to have some influential Christian figures that were and have been part and parcel in the development process of the county. Author Hamza Elayan named few of these Christian personalities in his book ‘Christians in Kuwait.’ He mentioned Saeed Yagoub Shamash, a Kuwaiti Christian, who was Kuwait’s ambassador to few countries such as New York in 1963, Russia (or the Soviet Union back then) in 1967, France in 1969 and Kenya in 1972.
Another leading Christian figures were the Shuhaibers who played a major role in developing the country’s security and health sectors. Ibrahim Dabdoub, is a banking figure that transformed National Bank of Kuwait from a local bank to a leading regional and international one, with the highest of profits. The book also highlighted the most unforgettable Christian figure in the history of Kuwait: the British Colonel administrator in the Middle East Lieutenant Colonel Harold Richard Patrick Dickson.
Dickson left a political and social imprint in the Kuwaiti society. He was nearest and dearest to the hearts of Kuwaiti people. Dickson learned the culture and the traditions; he became one of the member of his Kuwaiti community.
He was so influenced by the Kuwaiti culture that he named his son ‘Saud’ and his daughter ‘Zahra,’ which are typical Kuwaiti names. His wife, violet, was given the honorific name of ‘Umm Saud,’ the mother of Saud, and other times she was referred to as ‘Umm Kuwait,’ the mother of Kuwait. Their house has become a heritage monument that still stands today.
Jews in Kuwait
Elayan also documented the existence of Jewish people in the Gulf country in a book that carried the title ‘The Jews in Kuwait.’ The first traces of the Jewish people life in Kuwait dated back in 1776. They were around 80 to 200 Jewish persons, their number varies year in and year out. They mostly came from south of Iraq and Iran.
They worked in vocations that were unfamiliar to the Kuwaiti society back then. They mostly worked in money exchange, fabric, leather and food markets. They built the first ice factory in Kuwait in 1912. They were an economic force to be reckoned with. They had a market named after them, ‘the Jews’ market,’ Elayan pointed out in his book.
“The Kuwaitis were accepting of the Jewish people, as they were lenient to other religions,” Elayan said. They had their own Synagogue, Jewish temple, downtown Kuwait City where they practiced their faith freely. Saturday was a sacred day for them. They didn’t work that day. They also had their own Cemetery which showed that they lived there for a long time.
Consequently, the diversity of religions in Kuwait created an atmosphere of co-existence and accepting of the other. “Co-habitation and social tolerance is a sign of developed and cultured countries. The more diverse and cultured the people, the more tolerant they are to one another,” Society for Human Rights (KSHR) Secretary Hussain Al-Otaibi said.
He added that, nowadays, being in the midst of a storm of sectarian conflicts, extremism and terrorism, Kuwaiti Government has strived to ride this storm by inducing a sense of solidarity, respect and acceptance to the different other.
The Ministry of Interior has dedicated its time and personnel to provide safety for religious minorities to practice their faith freely and openly during their holidays, he said, adding that Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sheikh Mohammad Al-Khaled has gone on field inspections himself to ensure that these religious groups are provided with all means of safety and security.
As for religious groups not sanctioned in the Quran, such as the Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs, various statements from the Indian, Thai and Japanese embassies confirm the fact that there are no restrictions nor disrespect of their practices.
“Thai Buddhists here do not practice faith openly mainly because there is no temple/monastery nor a delegation of monks coming,” First Secretary at the Thai Embassy Pattarawan Nanakorn said. He added, “Thai Buddhists here are aware that Kuwait is a Muslim country so we do not practice religion out of respect, not by restrictions. In fact, I have not really heard there is official restriction. It is only advised through word of mouth that other believers should not practice religion too openly.”
Similarly, Second Secretary of Political and Commerce at the Indian Embassy affirmed that Sikh, also, have “no difficulty in practicing their faith.” Likewise, the Japanese in Kuwait can carry out their Shinto and Buddhist rituals, at home if they want to, Cultural Secretary at the Japanese Embassy Dana Zibar said.
According the latest United States Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2014, Kuwaiti Christians are estimated at more than 200 from eight different families. There are an estimated 600,000 non-citizen Hindus and approximately 450,000 Christians. Among non-citizens, there are also an estimated 100,000 Buddhists and 10,000 Sikhs. – KUNA