Interview with H. E. Mgr Camillo Ballin, Vicar Apostolic in Kuwait
How does a Catholic priest and bishop live in Kuwait?
Generally speaking all religions are respected in Kuwait; especially those Kuwaitis consider revealed religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I always wear my cassock and pectoral cross at home as well as outside. I have never had any particular problem; wherever I go I am always met with respect. However, Kuwaitis do not like to see the body of the crucified Christ on the cross. They would prefer to see only the cross. Once at the airport I was walking towards the Departure Terminal dressed as a clergyman, my cross in my breast pocket, as we do when we dress like that. A man came up to me, an ex oil minister, and asked me why I was hiding the cross. "Your cross in your honour," he said.
Could you outline Kuwait's main features from a social, political and religions point of view?
From a social point of view Kuwait needs foreigners. A million Kuwaitis live side by side with twice as many foreigners; two residents in three are outsiders. This means Kuwait is a multiethnic and multilingual society. However, people do not intermingle that much. Only Kuwaitis go to the diwaniye (sitting rooms where people receive on predetermined days of the week). In other places there are only Indians, and only from certain regions of India. Or just Filipinos. Kuwait is a complex society divided along national and linguistic lines.
Politically Kuwait is ruled by two royal families, the Jabers and the Salims whose ancestors were brothers. When a Jaber is emir, a Salim is deputy emir. When the emir dies the deputy emir takes over right away as the new emir. This way at no time can there be a power vacuum. However, right now the posts of emir, deputy emir and prime minister are actually all filled by Jabers. This is something quite odd.
Kuwait also has a parliament. Its largest faction is made up of fundamentalists who are just two seats short of an absolute majority. Great merchant families also play an important role, because they are the ones who bring money into the country. In the end though, Kuwait's stability lies squarely with the emir.
As a Gulf nation Kuwait is closely linked to the other nations of the Arabian Peninsula (especially neighbouring Saudi Arabia), which does not mean however that it and the other Gulf states are cut off from the wider Middle East.
In terms of religion Kuwait's population is predominantly Muslim, with small religious minorities. Kuwaiti nationals are almost all Muslim, except for about 200 Christians, including four Catholic families. Sunni Muslims represent 70 per cent of the population; Shiites are 30 per cent. Among foreign expatriates Catholics are the largest Christian group. In fact the Catholic Church cam claim at least 350,000 members. The Coptic Orthodox Church comes in second with at least some 70,000 members. Protestants come in third at around 10,000. Other Churches have 2,000 or less.
Can you say that the Catholic Church is free in Kuwait?
We must clearly define what we mean by freedom.
In Kuwait everyone is free to worship. Inside our churches we are completely free to worship as we please. The police has never intervened or interfered in our churches. But there are limits. We cannot conduct any celebration at home, only in church. For about 350,000 Catholics there are only three churches where they can meet for worship and we cannot build more. If panic should break out in one of them, hundreds of people could die in the resulting stampede. I applied for a lot of land to build another church, but so far I have not received any answer.
When Pope Benedict XVI baptised Magdi Allam on a live TV he wanted to send a signal about what religious liberty actually meant, namely the right to public profess one's faith as well as change it. Today this is impossible in Arab countries.
What is the life of a bishop in a predominantly Muslim country?
It is a life dedicated to Christians, and any non Christians he might become close to. For Christians the bishop provides help in their path towards the faith and a deeper commitment to Jesus Christ. At the same time, he must be humble enough to acknowledge that he needs others, their advice, friendship, collaboration and prayer.
As for non Christians the bishop must not shy away from his faith and principles. Any compromise, not even for the purpose of gaining favours for the Christian community, is admissible.
On the initiative of Shia leaders a joint Shia-Christian committee has been established with all the main Christian communities in Kuwait represented. I am one of its members. Also I have often been invited to speak at international inter-faith conferences.
Could you give us an insider's view of life in Kuwait's Christian community?
Life is like that of many other communities. We pray and promote education and study activities. Often we invite preachers and educators from abroad to address our groups (Charismatics, Jesus Youth, Neo-Cathecumenal communities, the disabled, etc.), and have had no problem in doing so.
We are not involved in politics, and so are respected and appreciated.
As for marriages and baptisms, I should point out that after they complete high school foreigners who want to go to university must leave Kuwait because local universities are for Kuwaitis only. And usually people who are trained abroad do not come back.
Also important to know is the fact that foreigners can stay in Kuwait only with a visa. This means they must have a job to get a residency permit in first place. Once they retire foreigners must go back to their country of origin, unless they were able to become naturalised elsewhere (like in the United States, Canada, Australia or Europe). Despite these restrictions we have hundreds of marriages and baptisms. Our catechism classes have for instance about 3,000 students.
How do Catholic schools operate?
There are three Catholic schools in Kuwait, run by three distinct religious congregations. This means that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the bishop. In these schools it is compulsory to teach Islam but teaching catechism to Christians is banned. Plus, Christians are not entitled to any space, however small to meet; nor can Christians pray in public before or after school. For this reason I do not consider these schools as Catholic but rather schools run by Catholics.
Has any Muslim asked you to be baptised and convert?
I have never seen any conversion from Islam to Christianity. They are simply impossible in an Arab or Islamic country. When I was in Egypt I got a few requests for conversion but I have always been suspicious. Often would-be converts turn out to government spies or people who want to convert just to emigrate more easily. I have lived in Arab countries for exactly 40 years and have neither baptised nor catechised any Muslim.
What problems or demands Christians most often bring to you?
Members of the Christian community want above all more space and time to nurture their Christian faith. As I said before finding a place for us is a huge problem. Time is another one. In fact many employees and workers do not have a regular work schedule.
Many, especially the thousands who work in private homes, must be available 24 hours. Others work 12, 13 hours or even more per day. After eight hours of work, overtime is not paid. Indeed domestic workers are especially vulnerable to unfair treatment and abuse. This is a very delicate issue about which I as a bishop cannot do anything.
From where you are in Kuwait how do you see what is going on in Europe as a result of large scale Muslim immigration?
I see that Europe is becoming progressively islamised. This process is the consequence of certain demographic trends and Western democratic laws. Add to that Europe's lack of interest for its Christian roots and religious values, and you can see why Muslims think they can fill Europe's religious vacuum.
The Church is open to inter-faith dialogue but at the same time on certain issues it cannot accept any compromise. Extreme individualism, secularism, indifference to God's presence in people's life and in the world, placing one's personal interest and prestige above everything else, betraying the Christian principles of life or even selling one's country to others; all this lead to a spiritual and human vacuum that is full of dangerous consequences. Christianity is not based on crucifixes in public places; nor is it Christmas celebrations or crèches. However, the decision to remove such signs so as not to hurt the feelings of Muslims is symptomatic of a policy of weakness, of giving up on our own religious traditions and convictions. Why not celebrate instead Christmas with all the children (Christians and Muslims) as well as Islamic holidays, thus observing the external expressions of both communities?
Based on your "Arab" experience, what advice would you give European and Italian Christians?
Italian (and European) Christians should return to their Christian roots, to a personal experience with Jesus. Parish life ought to be encouraged so that parish communities can actually exist and be more than a bulletin board. For this reason Church movements (Azione Cattolica, Charismatics, Neo-Catechumenals, Focolarini, etc.) are an essential tool. None of these movements is perfect. A perfect movement does not exist on this earth, only in heaven. However, we must be able to take all their positive aspects and grant the Holy Spirit the freedom to call people to this or that movement. Pope John Paul II was much in favour of this; so is Pope Benedict XVI.
What are the Church's plan for Gulf nations?
Our plan is to create a single Catholic Church in the Gulf rather than many. Hence we must insist a lot on a Christian education for our members. By earnestly and constantly bearing witness as Christians, they will make coexistence and dialogue with Muslims easier. There is no actual strategy as such but rather a set of practices designed to help various Church movements and prayer groups to teach the catechesis to children and take care of the liturgy which constitutes the moment when Christians feel less alone. Then there are pastoral letters and personal meetings.
What are your priorities as bishop?
My first priority is to create a single Catholic Church in Kuwait. It is a task that not only will take up all of my time during my ministry but also that of my successors.
What future is there for peaceful coexistence among different religious communities in the Middle East and Europe?
For the Gulf area I do not expect any particular tensions between Christians and Muslims because Christians know it is not their home, and that they will have to leave when they retire. They know that they are guests and that they will always be guests.
The situation is different in the Middle East (Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq) where Christians and Muslims have the same passports, belong to the same country, are citizens with the same rights and duties. I am convinced that only an enlightened dictatorship can guarantee peace in the Middle East, not an imported form of democracy. Iraq is a case in point: an attempt was made in this country to bring democracy from the outside with consequences everyone can see.
Europe is turning its back on its Christian roots in the name of a false idea of democracy and will adapt to whatever comes. When it will realise the direction it has taken, it will be too late to reverse course. For the small Christian communities that will survive in Europe, Jesus' dual call for unconditional love for God and our fellow man will become an even greater imperative.
Do you expect any change now that Obama is US president?
Obama has called for "change" but has never said how it will be implemented and especially what it will be all about. He wants to reduce the number of abortions but what he has done so far can only increase them and this at taxpayers' expense.
Many Catholics and Catholic publications rejoiced when he was elected; some even saw his election as Africa's "revenge". Personally I don't think we should play up the president's origins, African or otherwise, nor the colour of his skin. We should look instead at his plans. During the campaign he said he would end pro-Israel policies. That is a political issue I am not going to go into, except to say that for Arab countries a statement like that coming from Obama heralds changes in US policy.