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Religion and Society

Catholics in Kuwait: short on freedom and with a hulking neighbour

Yago de La Cierva

Kuwait Catholics are a growing community of almost 250,000, made up mostly of foreign workers who found employment in the third richest country in the world. They come by and large from places like India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and other countries in Central and East Asia.


There are also quite a few Catholics from Arab countries such as Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq who for ethnic and linguistic reasons feel more at home here than elsewhere.


In addition there is a tiny group of Catholic Kuwaitis, an oddity for the Arabian Peninsula, who due to a low birthrate are fast becoming an endangered species like Christians across the Middle East.


Economically the situation of immigrants is not that rosy, especially for those who have no particular skills and are forced to perform the most menial jobs in oil, public sector or construction industries. On average they earn about US$ 100 a month, plus food and shelter, for a six-day work week.


People living in developed countries might find such conditions unbearable, but for anyone who has fled poverty and war, things do not appear so bad.


Kuwait Catholics are not asking for civil rights. They are a peaceful lot, resigned to their status, certain that "life back home is even more difficult." Kuwait may be a hard place but it is a quiet place where they can live in peace and save as much money as possible to help their family survive back home.


With members from more than 23 countries, the Catholic community in Kuwait is truly a cultural mosaic. Friday masses (the local statutory day of rest) are a rainbow of nations and peoples, including the whole range of 13 Eastern Catholic Churches, like Maronites, Copts, Syriacs, Syro-Malabar, and many more, a real boost to the life of the local Church.


Given this social and political background, the pastoral unity of these communities is a very urgent problem. For this reason the Holy See decided to make an exception to a centuries-old rule with regards to ecclesiastic jurisdiction and appointed instead a single Latin bishop, Mgr Camillo Ballin, a Combonian from Italy's Veneto region, as Superior for all rites present in the Apostolic Vicariate of Kuwait.


If this arrangement should work, and that is a big if, it might be used elsewhere, in places where pastoral care for Catholics is difficult for the presence of a variety of rites.


Freedom of worship, but no conversion



In Kuwait as in almost every other nation on the Arabian Peninsula, Catholics enjoy a certain degree of religious freedom, insofar as they can meet to celebrate the Christian liturgy in places authorised by the government.


There are three Catholic churches in Kuwait, two parish churches and Holy Family Cathedral, located in downtown Kuwait City, a structure built on a piece of land given by Kuwait's first post-independence emir, six years after independence.


In such places Catholics can practice freely. The authorities do not interfere in activities like praying, children catechesis, biblical studies, etc. Given the vitality of the local Catholic community, anyone from the West who is in the country on business can feel good about Catholic community life, in many ways more active here than in many parishes in "Catholic countries".


Full religious freedom remains however a distant goal



First of all, more churches are needed. Not only is the community starved of meeting spaces, but for many Catholics living in outlying neighbourhoods it is nigh impossible to go to church, also because of poor public transit services on Fridays.


Thus, it is no accident that many Catholics who live in the three districts that have no Catholic place of worship at present attend Protestant and Pentecostal churches and end up leaving the church in which they were born and bred, not so much out of conviction as for simple geographic proximity.


Secondly, Catholics would like to see their religion taught in school, a right guaranteed to Muslim boys and girls. Not even in Catholic schools or foreign high schools is this possible. When Muslims attend religious class, others students attend "values" classes. Non-Islamic religious teaching is strictly forbidden outside the church. Breaking this rule would mean immediate closure for the school.


Thirdly, in Kuwait the Church cannot own property and is limited in what religious material it can import (books, publications, sacred images, etc.). Priests face a lot of red tape when applying for a visa or other papers, not so much that their troubles would attract media attention, but enough to make their life and pastoral care an every day uphill battle.


Finally, preaching the Gospel to anyone who is not a foreigner or a non-Muslim is impossible. Of course, churches are open and anyone can come in and listen. But like other countries in the region, any Muslim who converts to Christianity would be condemned to death.


If a Muslim does come into a church expressing a desire to become Christian, he would get the same answer: "We must respect the laws of the land, and thus we cannot accept you, unless you go and live in another country."


Relations with the government, cordial but time-consuming.


The constitution of Kuwait recognises Islam as state religion and Sharia as the main source for legislation. At the same time it guarantees "absolute freedom" of religion and practice in accordance with established traditions, insofar as they do not contradict public morality or order.


In fact reality is quite different. The authorities are always available, well disposed and probably quite sincere in their desire to meet the requests of the Church. Ultimately though the emirate's government is caught between the necessity to please Western democracies, which if pushed too far might lead to granting non-Muslims the same rights enjoyed by Muslims in Europe, and pressures from Muslim extremists who might create problems for the royal family, were it accused of not doing enough to defend Islam.


Similarly, social and political freedoms do not have the same meaning here in Kuwait as they do in the West. For instance, even non-Sunni Muslims have a hard time getting a permit to build their own places of worship.


Kuwaiti authorities are always cordial and they listen when the Catholic bishop asks for something. Fluent in Arabic Monsignor Ballin is well liked by the authorities and has an upfront relationship with them in religious matters, especially with the emir's sister, who is actively involved in inter-faith dialogue between Muslims and Christians.


In the end Christians must be very patient. They must make a virtue out of necessity and accept compromises, attend for instance places of worships that are not "officially" authorised but tolerated as long as their activities do not disturb the neighbours or are not too visible. Discretion is undoubtedly the first virtue Kuwait Catholics must possess.


It could actually even be worse; just look at the situation of Buddhists and Hindus whose worship is almost totally outlawed.


Kuwait's hulking neighbour



Although a policy of small, incremental steps has born fruit, despite its wealth Kuwait remains a small country in a vast Arab world, increasingly affected by the growing tensions among Islam's various souls and the still unresolved conflict between the "Christian" West and "Muslim" East. For this reason it is careful to take note of what happens in Saudi Arabia with whom it shares a 222-kilometre border.


As the custodian of the two most sacred sites in Islam, Makkah and Madinah, the Saudi regime exercises a special moral authority in the Muslim world. When it comes to religion it is also the most restrictive in the region, if not the world. Therefore, its neighbours go to great lengths to see and heed what it does. Yet King Abdullah's visit to the Vatican and his meeting with Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 might yet have positive repercussions on the situation of Christians in the region as a whole.


At present Kuwait Catholics enjoy a life of peace, but they are still hoping that the freedom of worship they now have might one day become real freedom of religion.