Freedom of religion in Kuwait
The following is sourced in the main from the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report for Kuwait, compiled by the United States Department of State. Inline citations have only been provided where this article departs from that source.
The Constitution provides for religious freedom. The constitution of Kuwait provides for absolute freedom of belief and for freedom of religious practice. The constitution stated that Islam is the state religion and that Sharia is a source of legislation. In general, citizens were open and tolerant of other religious groups. Regional events contributed to increased sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia.
There are 1.2 million citizens and 2.6 million non-citizens. In 2001, there were 525,000 Sunni Kuwaiti citizens, 300,000 Shia Kuwaiti citizens and 820,000 Kuwaiti citizens in total thus Sunnis formed 64% and Shias formed 36.5% of the Kuwaiti citizen population. In 2002, the US Department of State reported that Shia Kuwaitis formed 30%-40% of Kuwait's citizen population, noting there were 525,000 Sunni Kuwaiti citizens and 855,000 Kuwaiti citizens in total (61% Sunnis, 39% Shias). In 2004, there were 600,000 Sunni Kuwaitis citizens, 300,000-350,000 Shia Kuwaiti citizens and 913,000 Kuwaiti citizens in total. There is also a small number of Ahmadi Muslims in Kuwait.
There are also Christian Kuwaiti citizens. In 1999, there were 400 Christian Kuwaiti citizens. In June 2013, there were 256 Christian Kuwaiti citizens residing in Kuwait. There is also a small number of Bahai Kuwaiti citizens. An estimated 150,000 noncitizen residents are Shia. While some areas have relatively high concentrations of either Sunnis or Shia, most areas are religiously well integrated.
There are an estimated 600,000 non-citizen Hindus. The non‑citizen Christian population is estimated to be more than 450,000. The government-recognized Christian churches include the Roman Catholic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the National Evangelical Church Kuwait (Protestant), the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Greek Orthodox Church (referred to in Arabic as the Roman Orthodox Church), the Greek Catholic (Melkite) Church, and the Anglican Church. There are also many unrecognized Christian religious groups with smaller populations. There are an estimated 100,000 Buddhists, 10,000 Sikhs, and 400 Bahais, the majority of whom are non-citizens.
Status of religious freedom
Legal and policy framework
The constitution provides for religious freedom; however, some laws restrict religious freedom. The constitution provides for “absolute freedom” of belief and for freedom of religious practice. The constitution states that Islam is the state religion.
The law requires jail terms for journalists convicted of defaming any religion and prohibits denigration of Islam and Judeo-Christian religious figures, including Muhammad and Jesus. The law prohibits publications that the government deems could create hatred, spread dissension among the public, or incite persons to commit crimes.
The government has Islamic religious instruction in public schools for all students. Non-Muslim students are not required to attend these classes. High school Islamic education textbooks are based largely on the Sunni interpretation of Islam. Some text books from the ninth-grade Islamic studies curriculum refer to certain Shia religious beliefs and practices as heretical. There are laws against blasphemy, apostasy, and proselytizing.
The government does not designate religion on passports or national identity documents, with the exception of birth certificates. On birth certificates issued to Muslims, the government does not differentiate between Sunnis and Shia.
The Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs is officially responsible for overseeing religious groups. The procedures for registering and licensing religious groups are similar to those for NGOs. There are seven officially recognized churches: the National Evangelical, Catholic, Coptic Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, and Anglican churches. They work with a variety of government entities in conducting their affairs. These include the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor for visas and residence permits for clergy and other staff, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Municipality of Kuwait for building permits and land concerns, and the Ministry of Interior for security and police protection of places of worship. The government imposes quotas on the number of clergy and staff officially recognized religious groups can bring into the country.
Religious courts administer personal status law. Shia Muslims 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 Shia request to establish a court of cassation to oversee Shia personal status issues. The court is not yet established. An independent Islamic charity administers Shia religious endowments.
The government observes the following Muslim holidays as national holidays: Islamic New Year, Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Ascension of the Prophet, Eid al-Fitr, and Eid al-Adha. Private employers can decide whether to give their non‑Muslim employees time off for non-Muslim holidays. Eating, drinking, and smoking in public are prohibited during Ramadan between sunrise and sunset, even for non-Muslims.
There were reports of abuses of religious freedom. Government restrictions primarily affected non-Sunni citizens and residents. Municipal authorities became more active in obstructing religious gatherings at unofficial, private spaces. Courts sentenced several individuals to time in prison for religious offenses and there were reports of bias in the issuance of legal verdicts.
Kuwait does not have Shia religious training institutions for clergy. Kuwaiti Shias who wanted to serve as imams had to seek training and education abroad (primarily in Iraq, Iran, and to a lesser degree Syria) due to the lack of Shia jurisprudence courses at Kuwait University’s College of Islamic Law, the country’s only institution to train imams.
The government imposed quotas on the number of clergy and staff recognized groups could bring into the country. Religious groups found the quotas insufficient for the needs of their congregations, experienced difficulties obtaining visas and residence permits, and found authorities to be unresponsive. In 2012, the Roman Catholic Church announced that it would move the seat of the Vicariate of Northern Arabia from Kuwait to Bahrain, in part due to the difficulties it faced in obtaining adequate numbers of visas in Kuwait. The Vicariate had been in the country since 1953. Foreign religious leaders of unrecognized religious groups had to enter the country as non-religious workers, which required them to minister to their congregations outside of their regular non-religious employment.
Churches that applied for licenses to build new places of worship often had to wait for approval for a substantial period of time. In some cases, such applications were denied. Some applications were refused based on technical grounds. Most of the recognized Christian churches considered their existing facilities inadequate to serve their communities and faced significant problems in obtaining proper approvals from municipal councils to construct new facilities. Members of the Shia community expressed concern over the relative scarcity of Shia mosques due to the government’s slowness in approving repairs to existing mosques or the construction of new ones. Since 2001, the government granted licenses and approved the construction of six new Shia mosques. Including these six, there are a total of 35 Shia mosques nationally.
The government exercised direct control of Sunni religious institutions. The government appointed Sunni imams, monitored their Friday sermons, and financed construction of Sunni mosques. In some instances, Sunni imams were suspended for delivering sermons whose content the government deemed inflammatory. The government did not exert this control over Shia mosques, which the Shia community, not the government, funded.
Shia worshipers gathered peacefully in public spaces to attend sermons and eulogies during Ashura and the government provided security to Shia neighborhoods. However, the government did not permit self-flagellation (public reenactments) of the martyrdom of Hussein.
While seven Christian churches were legally recognized, others were not, including the Indian Orthodox, Mar Thoma, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter‑day Saints (Mormons), and Seventh-day Adventist Church. These religious groups freely operated in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of recognized churches. Members of these congregations reported that they were able to worship without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws.
Kuwait does not have non-Muslim religious publishing companies. Several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use. The government permitted a private company, the Book House Company Ltd., to import Bibles and other Christian religious materials for use by church congregations. The Book House Company Ltd. was the only company licensed to import such materials.
Shia were represented in the police force and some branches of the military/security apparatus, although not in all branches and often not in leadership positions. Some Shia alleged that a “glass ceiling” of discrimination prevented them from obtaining leadership positions in some of these organizations. However, since 2006 the prime minister has appointed two Shia ministers to each cabinet, including the current one. The emir had several senior-level Shia advisors.
Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
There were reports of societal abuse or discrimination based on religious affiliation or belief. Regional events, including the conflict in Syria and public protests in Bahrain, have contributed to increased sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shia.
There were no known Jewish citizens and an estimated few dozen Jewish foreign resident workers. Negative commentary regarding Jews appeared in the media. Anti-Semitic rhetoric often originated from self-proclaimed Islamists or conservative opinion writers. These columnists often conflated Israeli actions with those of Jews more broadly.
Church officials reported that some Christian domestic workers complained that their employers would not allow them to leave their homes, which prevented them from worshiping with their congregations and regularly practicing their faith. Most domestic workers are allowed one day off per week, complicating workers’ ability to worship weekly and accomplish all other personal business. Some domestic workers reported their employers confiscated religious articles such as Bibles and rosary beads, along with nonreligious items.
Many hotels, stores, and other businesses patronized by both citizens and non-citizens openly acknowledged non-Muslim holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Diwali. During the Christmas season, stores, malls, and homes were decorated with Christmas trees and lights, and Christmas music, including songs with explicitly Christian lyrics, was broadcast in public spaces and on the radio. Christian holiday decorations were widely available for purchase. None of the many stores that had Christmas-themed displays reported negative incidents. The news media regularly printed reports of religious holiday celebrations, including large supplement sections detailing the religious significance of Christmas. In December, several civil society groups condemned calls from some groups and individuals forbidding the celebration of Christmas. Calls to forbid Christmas celebrations were not common.
- "Kuwait". International Religious Freedom Report. 2012.
- "International Religious Freedom Report". US State Department. 2001.
- "International Religious Freedom Report". US State Department. 2002.
- "International Religious Freedom Report". US State Department. 2004.
- "International Religious Freedom Report". US State Department. 1999.
- "Nationality By Relegion and Gender". Government of Kuwait. 2013.