International Religious Freedom Report 2004
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
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 some improvement in the status of respect for religious freedom during the period covered by this report. The Government approved some long-standing Shi'a requests for reform, including the establishment of an independent Shi'a waqf (endowment) and Shi'a court of cassation (Supreme Court) to handle Shi'a personal status and family law cases. The Prime Minister met separately with the various religious groups and political groups in the country to combat religious extremism and promote religious tolerance. An Apostolic Nunciature, based in the country, 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 as part of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Section I. Religious Demography
The country has a total area of 6,880 square miles, and its population is 2.5 million. Of the country's total population, approximately 1.6 million are Muslim, including the vast majority of its approximately 913,000 citizens. The remainder of the total population consists of approximately 1.5 million foreign workers and tens of thousands of Bidoon (officially stateless) Arabs with residence ties to the country but who either have no documentation of or are unwilling to disclose 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 300,000 to 350,000) are Shi'a, as are approximately 100,000 noncitizen 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 Church, with 2 official churches and a third worship facility in a rented house in which religious services are held, and an estimated 100,000 members (Latin, Maronite, Coptic Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Malabar, and Malankara congregations all worship at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait City); the Greek Catholic Church, with approximately 2,000 members (Greek Catholics worship in a rented house, not at the Catholic cathedral in Kuwait City); the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church, with approximately 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 approximately 20,000 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 approximately 4,000 members; and the Coptic Orthodox Church, with an estimated 65,000 members.
There are many other unrecognized Christian denominations in the country, totaling 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 130,000 adherents), Sikhs (estimated 40,000), Baha'is (estimated 400), and Buddhists (no statistics available).
Missionary groups in the country serve non-Muslim congregations. The Government prohibits proselytizing by non-Muslims.
Section II. Status of Religious Freedom
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 is a main source of legislation. The Government observes Islamic holidays.
The 1961 Press and Publications Law specifically prohibits the publication of any material that attacks religions or incites persons to commit crimes, create hatred, or spread dissention among the public. There are laws against blasphemy, apostasy, and proselytizing. These laws sometimes have been used to restrict religious freedom.
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 and land issues). 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 pastors and staff to operate their churches.
Four denominations are widely understood to enjoy full recognition by the Government and are allowed to operate compounds officially designated as churches: the Roman Catholic Church, Coptic Orthodox Church, Anglican Church, and National Evangelical (Protestant) Church. However, they face quotas on the number of clergy and staff they can bring in to the country, and their existing facilities are inadequate to serve their respective communities.
The Greek Catholic Church has an open file at the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, but Greek Catholics worship in a rented house (two other Indian Catholic denominations also use the house for worship services).
The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches reportedly are allowed to operate openly, hire employees, invite religious speakers, and conduct other such activities without government interference; however, according to government records, their facilities are registered only as private homes. For example, the Armenian Orthodox Church rents a private house from a citizen and uses it for worship services and other religious purposes. No other churches or religions have legal status, but adherents generally are allowed to operate freely in private homes provided that they do not violate laws against assembly or proselytizing.
The procedures for registration and licensing of religious groups appear to be connected to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). In 1993, the Council of Ministers ordered all unlicensed NGOs to cease activities, but this order has never been enforced. There are hundreds of unlicensed, informal NGOs, clubs, and civic groups in the country. Since 1985, the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor has issued only six new NGO licenses. As of May, there were approximately 200 NGO applications pending with the Ministry.
There were reports that in the last few years at least two groups applied for permission to build their own churches, but the Government had not responded to their requests at the end of the period covered by this report.
In 2001, the Government announced 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 street-side charity boxes. In 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 department is responsible for regulating religious charities based in the country by reviewing their applications for registration and monitoring their operations. All charitable contributions of licensed Islamic charities in the country now require Central Bank approval.
The Higher Advisory Committee on Completion of the Application of Islamic Shari'a Provisions, created by an Amiri Decree in 1991, is tasked with preparing society for the full implementation of Shari'a (Islamic law) in all fields. The Committee makes recommendations to the Amir on ways in which current laws can be brought into better conformity with Islamic Shari'a, but it has no authority to enforce such changes. The Committee reviewed laws during the year related to the Penal Code and the Banking Code. At present the Constitution says Shari'a is a main source of legislation, but some Islamists would like to amend that to the main source.
The following religious holidays are considered national holidays: Eid al-Adha, Islamic New Year, Prophet's Birthday, and Eid al-Fitr.
The Government requires Islamic religious instruction in public schools for all students.
The Government has not taken any reported steps to promote interfaith understanding through the support or sponsorship of official programs to coordinate interfaith dialogue; however, the Prime Minister met separately with the leading Muslim sects and political groupings in early 2004 to denounce religious extremism and promote religious tolerance.
Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Shi'a are free to worship according to their faith without government interference, and the overall situation for Shi'a improved somewhat during the period covered by this report. However, members of the Shi'a community have expressed concern about the relative scarcity of Shi'a mosques due to the Government's slow approval of the construction of new mosques and the repair of existing ones. (There are approximately 30 Shi'a mosques compared with approximately 1,200 Sunni mosques in the country.) Since 2000, the Government has granted licenses for and has approved the construction of four new Shi'a mosques. All four mosques reportedly are still under construction.
There are approximately 600 Shi'a husseiniyas in the country, approximately 500 of which are informal or unlicensed.
Family law in the country is administered through religious courts. 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. In 2003, 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 and family law cases at the highest judicial level. However, the court has not yet been established because there are no Shi'a (Ja'fari) judges for this level of prosecution. In November 2003, the Government publicly announced its approval of another long-standing Shi'a request for the establishment of an independent Shi'a (Ja'fari) waqf, an agency to administer religious endowments in accordance with the Shi'a Ja'fari school of jurisprudence.
Shi'a who aspire to serve as imams are forced to seek appropriate training and education abroad (mainly in Iraq and Iran), due to the lack of Shi'a jurisprudence courses at Kuwait University's College of Islamic Law (Faculty of Shari'a), which only offers Sunni jurisprudence. The Ministry of Education is reviewing a Shi'a application to establish a private college to train Shi'a clerics within the country.
Shi'a remain under-represented in upper levels of government. Five Shi'a were elected to the 50-seat National Assembly in 2003, compared to 6 Shi'a in the previous assembly. Only Information Minister Muhammad Abdallah Abbas Abulhasan was a Shi'a. There were no Shi'a in the Kuwait State Security (KSS) forces.
The Roman Catholic, Anglican, National Evangelical, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Greek Catholic churches operate freely on their premises and hold worship services without government interference. Their leaders also state that the Government generally is 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 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, Sikhs, Baha'is, and Buddhists, may not build official places of worship since these religions lack legal status, but they are allowed to worship privately in their homes without government interference.
In 2002, after mounting pressure from country residents in the district of Salwa, the Government ordered the closure of a Sikh gurudwara, or temple. Sikhs who had worshipped there were able to worship at another Sikh temple. The closed house temple later was allowed to reopen. During the period covered by this report, there were no reported closures of other Sikh house temples. The Sikh community generally was able to worship freely and engage in other religious activities, including public marriage and other celebrations, without government interference.
In 2003, the Government reportedly closed the file on the National Evangelical Church (NEC) due to the NEC's alleged failure to comply with the National Manpower Support Law by employing the requisite number of country nationals. As of May, the Government had reinstated the NEC's open file status, and the Church was able to apply for and renew visas for pastors and staff; however, in accordance with the National Manpower Support Law, the Government imposed substantial annual fines for every visa applied for or renewed on behalf of noncitizen staff, in addition to routine visa and residency fees. Church leaders were negotiating with government authorities to resolve the fine issue and exempt the Church from the law's Kuwaitization requirements. As of June, the issue remained unresolved.
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 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 period covered by this report, the Government still had not responded to the request from the Roman Catholic Church that Catholic students be allowed to study the catechism separately during the period in which Muslim students receive mandatory instruction in Islam.
The Roman Catholic Church faces severe overcrowding at its two official church facilities. Its cathedral in downtown Kuwait City regularly draws tens of thousands of worshippers to its more than 20 weekly services in several languages. Due to limited space on the compound, the Church is unable to construct any new buildings. The National Evangelical Church, which serves a weekly average of 20,000 worshippers in approximately 60 congregations, is also overcrowded. The Church is seeking approximately 15 to 20 acres of new land to alleviate overcrowding and petitioned the Government for additional land during the period covered by this report. As of June, the Government had not responded to the Church's request.
The Coptic Orthodox Church also faces challenges, such as overcrowding at its small compound in Kuwait City and restrictions on assembly and religious teaching; however, it is able to operate openly without interference from government authorities. In 2002 the Government notified the Coptic Orthodox Church of its intention to reacquire the parcel of land on which the church is located for a road expansion project. During the period covered by this report, the Government granted the Coptic Orthodox Church 6,500 square meters of new land in Hawally district to build a new place of worship; the Church had only requested 5,000 square meters. The Government has not offered any financial assistance to construct a new church, but municipal authorities provided a written commitment, in response to a church request, that it would not force the Church to vacate its current premises until a new facility was available. No date has yet been set for the church's relocation.
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 by the congregations of the country's recognized churches. The Book House Company Ltd. is the only bookstore that has an import license to bring in such materials, which also require approval by government censors. There have been reports of customs officials confiscating non-Islamic religious materials from private citizens upon their arrival at the airport. In 2003, police arrested five foreign workers for allegedly proselytizing with Bibles in Andalus district. State security officials later released the individuals on condition that they sign commitments pledging to refrain from proselytizing.
The Islam Presentation Committee (IPC), under the authority of the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, actively encouraged proselytizing to non-Muslims. The IPC maintained an office at the Central Prison to provide religious education and information to inmates. In late 2003, the IPC established the NGO AWARE to promote awareness of Islam and understanding of Arab and Islamic culture and provide training courses to foreigners.
Although there is a small community of approximately 200 Christian citizens, a 1980 law 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.
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 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 of age or older are free to obtain a passport and travel abroad without permission of a male relative; however, a married woman must obtain her husband's permission to apply for or renew a passport. 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 placing a 24-hour travel ban on her through immigration authorities. After this 24-hour period, a court order is required if the husband still wishes to prevent his wife from leaving the country. In practice, however, many travel bans are issued without court order, effectively preventing citizens and foreigners from departing. All minor children (under age 21) require their father's permission to travel outside the country. This also applies to children born to citizen fathers and noncitizen mothers, who are regarded as citizens and must be raised as Muslims.
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 period covered by this report, there were no reports of the Government prohibiting state employees from displaying or practicing any elements of their faith. However, in late 2003, the headmistress of a public high school in Farwaniya district reportedly dismissed several female students for failure to wear the hijab, or headscarf. The school readmitted the students and the headmistress was criticized widely in the local media.
The law requires jail terms for journalists who defame religion. Academic freedom is limited in practice by self-censorship, and academics, like 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. Unlike in previous years, there were no reports during the period covered by this report of Islamists using these laws to threaten writers with prosecution for publishing opinions deemed insufficiently observant of Islamic norms, or of religiously based prosecutions of authors or journalists.
In January the Court of Misdemeanor sentenced a Shi'a citizen to 1 year in jail with hard labor and fined him approximately $3,500 (1,000 KD) for producing and distributing an audiotape defaming the Islamic (Sunni) religion, degrading its rituals and rites, and defaming and abusing the Prophet Mohammed's Companions. In February the citizen reportedly was released from prison in error by an Amiri Pardon issued on the occasion of the country's National Day. The Government subsequently issued a warrant for his arrest, but he reportedly remained at large. In March the Appeals Court dismissed the original misdemeanor verdict and referred the citizen's case to the Public Prosecutor for re-trial by the Criminal Court. The citizen now also faces more serious charges of violating the State Security Law. On May 18, the Criminal Court sentenced Al Habib to 10 years in jail in absentia for defaming (Sunni) Islam. Most Shi'a believe that hard-line Sunni Islamist pressure is behind the Government's harsh action against Al Habib, even though they too have publicly condemned his anti-Sunni statements and the audiocassette incident.
During the period covered by this report, Sunni Islamist members of the National Assembly's Education, Culture, and Guidance Committee proposed separating an article in the Press and Publications Law governing the penalties for blasphemy and other crimes that defame religion into two distinct articles--one outlining the penalties for blasphemy and disparagement of messengers, prophets, angels, and the Holy Koran; and the other specifying affronting the Prophet Mohammed's Companions and wives as a separate offense (i.e., specifically criminalizing Shi'a disparagement of Sunni religious belief). As of May, the committee had not yet issued a final decision on the issue.
The Ministry of Interior, General Customs Department, arrested several individuals for allegedly practicing sorcery and confiscated alleged sorcery-related materials during the period covered by this report.
The Government does not designate religion on passports or national identity documents.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.
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, 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 to the United States.
Abuses by Terrorist Organizations
There were no reported abuses targeted at specific religions by terrorist organizations during the period covered by this report.
Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom
The overall situation for Shi'a improved during the period covered by this report. In October, 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 and family law cases. The Government already allows Shi'a to follow their own Ja'fari jurisprudence in matters of personal status at the first instance and appellate levels. In November, the Government publicly announced its approval of another long-standing Shi'a request for the establishment of an independent Shi'a (Ja'fari) waqf (endowment), supervised by the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs, to govern the use of funds for Shi'a charitable and religious purposes. This year for the first time, the Government permitted Shi'a to stage a public reenactment of the Battle of Karbala depicting the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed's grandson. Kuwait TV, also for the first time, broadcast programs on the Shi'a religious holiday of Ashoura.
The Ministry of Education continued to review a Shi'a proposal to establish a private college to train Shi'a clerics within the country; however, at the end of the period covered by this report, no action had been taken on the proposal. In April, the Council of Ministers (Cabinet) decided to subsume the Faculty of Shari'a at Kuwait University (which teaches only Sunni jurisprudence) into the Faculty of Law. Due to strong opposition by Islamist parliamentarians and other Islamist groups, the Government initiated a review of the proposal. As of May, the merger of the two faculties, which would in effect dilute the influence of the Faculty of Shari'a, had not been implemented.
Thousands of Bohras (Shi'a Muslims mainly from Gujarat in western India who trace their spiritual ancestry to conversion to Islam in the 11th century) were permitted to worship freely and assemble in their own husseiniya (Shi'a community center), where social and religious functions typically are held. During the period covered by this report, their spiritual leader based in India, Syedna Mohammed Burhanudin, visited the country and met with high-level government officials.
An Apostolic Nuncio accredited to the country and also to Bahrain, Qatar, and Yemen is resident in Kuwait City. The Catholic Church views the Government's 2001 agreement to upgrade to full diplomatic relations with the Vatican as significant in terms of government tolerance of Christianity.
The Ministry of Education announced its intention to combat religious intolerance by clarifying the concept of jihad in school curriculums; this initiative encountered strong condemnation from some Islamist members of parliament. During the period covered by this report, the Ministry removed teachers thought to be Islamic extremists but did not make any reported changes to school curricula.
The new assertiveness of Shi'a in Iraq since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime has encouraged Shi'a, who comprise approximately a third of the citizen population, to raise their profile. As a result, Sunni Islamist extremists have become more stridently hostile toward Shi'a practices. During the period covered by this report, the Prime Minister met separately with the various Muslim groups and political groupings in the country in an attempt to alleviate sectarian tensions and combat extremism.
There was some interfaith dialogue among Christian denominations during the period covered by this report. The Government did not take any reported steps to promote interfaith understanding, with the exception of the Prime Minister's separate meetings with Shi'a and various Sunni groups to promote greater religious tolerance.
Sunni Islamist groups pressed the Government to tighten restrictions on public concerts and other cultural events that they believed violated Shari'a principles. In April, the Ministry of Information approved the licensing of a popular Arab music concert, Star Academy, despite strong opposition from Sunni Islamist parliamentarians and other Islamist groups who condemned it as immoral.
Section III. Societal Attitudes
In general there are amicable relations among the various religious communities, 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 Southeast Asian nationals, that they would receive better treatment from employers as well as from 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 forbidden. 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, verbal abuse, police monitoring of their activities, arbitrary detention, and imposition of travel bans and fines without due process.
The liberation of Iraq's Shi'a majority has increased the assertiveness of Shi'a in the country, who achieved some important gains period against institutionalized discrimination during the period covered by this report. Some hard-line Sunni Islamist extremists became more outwardly hostile towards Shi'a religious practices and distributed virulently anti-Shi'a leaflets outside Sunni mosques during the period covered by this report. Sunni Islamist parliamentarians repeatedly threatened to question liberal Shi'a Information Minister Abulhassan (the only Shi'a in the 16-member Cabinet) for permitting immoral concerts and other programs deemed offensive to Islam. Many Shi'a believe the harsh sentence imposed against Shi'a activist Yasser Al-Habib, who disparaged Sunni religious belief in an audiocassette in December 2003, was a result of hard-line Sunni Islamist pressure. To prevent an escalation in sectarian tensions and demonstrate the Government's commitment to religious freedom, the Prime Minister met separately with the various religious and political groups during the year to promote religious tolerance and combat extremism.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall policy to promote human rights.
Intensive monitoring of religious freedom issues has long been an Embassy priority. U.S. Embassy officials meet frequently with recognized Sunni, Shi'a, and Christian groups, as well as representatives of various unrecognized faiths and NGOs that deal with religious freedom issues. Such meetings have afforded Embassy officials the opportunity to learn the status and concerns of religious groups, and to monitor progress on religious freedom.
The Embassy actively encourages the Government to address the concerns of religious leaders, such as overcrowding, lack of adequate worship space, insufficient staffing, and bureaucratic delays in processing routine requests. During the period covered by this report, the Embassy met with senior representatives from the major recognized Christian denominations in the country, encouraged them to present their concerns in a unified manner to the Government, and advocated on their behalf in high-level meetings with government officials.