Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application
Located in the Persian Gulf, Kuwait is ruled by the Al Sabah, a Sunni Muslim dynasty. The majority of the country’s citizens adhere to Sunni Islam. There is, however, a large Shi‘a minority of around 30 percent. They theoretically enjoy full political rights but have experienced a rise in harassment in the aftermath of the 2003 outbreak of hostilities in Iraq and the 2011 uprising in Bahrain. According to local sources, Christians include both Protestants and Catholics. There are also Baha‘is who hold Kuwaiti citizenship. Kuwait is thus among the few Gulf countries that allow non-Muslims to be citizens. Naturalisation for non-Muslims, however, is not possible.
The number of non-citizen residents in the country is much larger than the number of citizens. Among foreigners, Muslims, both Sunnis (number unknown) and Shi‘as (around 150,000), constitute the biggest group. Then come an estimated 600,000 Hindu residents and around 450,000 Christians. Figures regarding religious demography vary considerably. According to the latest statistics released by the Public Authority for Civil Information, more than 822,000 Christians live in Kuwait. However, the overwhelming majority of them are non-citizens. There are just eight Christian families official declared as citizens – a total of just over 200 people. Together with Bahrain, Kuwait is the only Gulf Cooperation Council country to have a local Christian population holding citizenship.
Seven Christian denominations have official recognition, namely the Latin-rite and Greek Catholic Church, the Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches, the National Evangelical Church and the Anglican Church. Other Churches enjoy de facto recognition.
The Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in Kuwait. According to local Catholic sources, there are around 350,000 Catholics belonging to different rites.
Kuwait was the first member of the Gulf Cooperation Council to establish diplomatic ties with the Holy See in October 1968. It was only in the year 2000, however, that the Apostolic Nunciature opened in Kuwait.
The Kuwaiti constitution of 1962, reinstated in 1992 after the Iraqi occupation, states in article 2: “The religion of the state is Islam and Islamic Law shall be a main source of legislation.” Article 12 declares: “The state shall maintain the Islamic and Arab heritage and shall share in the path of civilisation and humanitarianism.” Article 29 guarantees equality: “The people are peers in human dignity and have, in the eyes of the Law, equal public rights and obligations. There shall be made no differentiation among them because of race, origin, language or religion.” Article 35 states that freedom of belief is unrestricted: “The state shall protect freedom in the observance of religious rites established by custom, provided such observance does not conflict with morals or disturb public order.”
According to the 1984 Law 51 on Personal Status, which is based on Shari‘a (Islamic law), under article 18, the marriage of a non-Muslim man to a Muslim woman is invalid. Under article 294 of the same law, apostates cannot inherit from their Muslim relatives or spouse.
Kuwait also has laws to punish individuals accused of blasphemy. The 2012 Law 19 on National Unity, which amends article 111 of the Penal Code, imposes stricter penalties. It also criminalises the publication or the broadcast of content that could be deemed offensive to religious sects or groups. Penalties include fines ranging from US$36,000 to US$720,000 and up to seven years in prison. Non-citizens who are convicted are subject to deportation. Under the country’s blasphemy legislation, anyone can file criminal charges against an author of material deemed defamatory on religious grounds.
Religious groups can apply for registration but the process is said to be lengthy and not transparent. Registered religious groups are allowed to rent space to worship. Only citizens can purchase land. Registered groups can bring clergy and religious personnel from abroad. In Christian schools, catechetic instruction is forbidden, although this can be taught in private homes or in church compounds. In private schools, Islamic instruction is mandatory for Muslim pupils. This applies even if there is only one Muslim pupil present. Christian pupils do not have to attend.
The law does not allow non-Muslims to proselytise among Muslims.
Eating, drinking and smoking are forbidden during Ramadan. This applies also to non-Mu- slims. It is punishable by a fine and/or imprisonment for one month.
In April 2016 Sheikha al-Jassem, a well-known female academic and human rights activist, was charged with blasphemy. Reacting during an interview on Al-Shahed TV to a question about radical Islamists who had said that they consider religion more important than Kuwait’s constitution, the professor of philosophy at Kuwait University declared that, in her opinion, politics and religion should be kept apart. She said: “You cannot compare the two [the constitution and the Qur’an]; none are superior over the other. Each has its own place.” She added that the constitution relates to the state of Kuwait while the Qur’an is a book for Muslims. Although the charges were later dismissed, Sheikha al-Jassem was subject to private intimidation and a public campaign against her. She told the BBC:
“They were terrifying me – everywhere, not just from Kuwait, even from Saudi Arabia.” Some called for her expulsion from Kuwait University. The general prosecutor eventually decided “that freedom of speech cannot be restrained and not every discussion on religious matters is blasphemy. Therefore, both complaints [have been] dismissed.”
In August 2017, a new incident stirred up Shi‘a-Sunni tensions again, but from a neighbouring country, Saudi Arabia. Following the death of renowned Kuwaiti actor Abdulhussein Abdulredha, Dr Ali Al Rabieei, a Saudi cleric, tweeted: “Muslims are not allowed to pray for Abdulredha because he was an Iranian denier [of Sunni Islam], who died misguided. God forbade Muslims from wishing mercy and repentance for unbelievers.” These declarations caused outrage in Kuwait, and Kuwaiti intellectuals issued a statement calling for legal action against Dr Al Rabieei for his “abusive words against the sanctity of the deceased”. Dr Al Rabieei was summoned for interrogation by the Culture and Information Ministry and urged to delete his comment and apologise. Dr Al Rabieei did eventually apologise but retorted that he would only accept punishment if it was proven that his comment contradicted religious scripture and edicts made by senior Saudi Islamic scholars.
Tensions between Sunni and Shi‘a are recurrent. Although there has been no major terrorist attack, the regional situation has an impact on Kuwait’s Shi‘a minority. In 2016, a group of more than 20 Shi‘as, all but one of them Kuwaitis, were found guilty of belonging to a cell linked to Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The death sentence given to the “cell leader” was subsequently commuted to life imprisonment. More recently, in July 2017, 14 Shi‘a Kuwaitis convicted of belonging to a cell linked to Iran and Hezbollah fled to Iran after the Supreme Court overturned their acquittal by the appeals court.
In November 2017, Kuwaiti authorities arrested Pastor Shibu Mathew. He was accused of having spoken out against Islam while participating in interfaith dialogue involving Christians and Muslims. He has subsequently been released and has left the country.
Prospects for freedom of religion
Religious freedom in Kuwait remains limited to the freedom of worship. Regional tensions between Sunnis and Shi‘as do have a great impact on Kuwait, and on its Shi‘a community. Although religious equality is upheld in the constitution, non-Muslims are in effect penalised by the country’s legal structure and culture. Christian catechesis is banned in schools, a non-Muslim man cannot marry a Muslim woman, non-Muslims can be fined or jailed for failing to keep the Ramadan fast and the threat of blasphemy charges is still very strong.
Endnotes / Sources
 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, ‘Kuwait’, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, U.S. State Department, https://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/irf/religiousfreedom/index.htm#wrapper, (accessed 5th March 2018)
 ‘Kuwait’, Freedom in the World 2016, Freedom House, https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-wor- ld/2015/kuwait, (accessed 21st February 2018).
 R. Ibrahim, ‘The Islamic Prerequisite of Kuwaiti Citizenship’, 18th May 2015, [personal website] http://raymondibrahim.com/2015/05/18/the-islamic-prerequisite-of-kuwaiti citizenship/, (accessed 24th February 2018).
 ‘Christians in Kuwait’, The Catholic Church in Kuwait, The Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia, http://www.avona.org/kuwait/christians_in_kuwait.htm#.VlG1hZ0weM8, (accessed 18th February 2018).
 B. Garcia, ‘Getting to know the Christians in Kuwait’, Kuwait Times, 26th February 2018, http://news.kuwaittimes.net/website/getting-know-christians-kuwait/, (accessed 18th February 2018).
 I. Naar, ‘An inside look at the native Christian community of Kuwait’, Al-Arabiya, 25th December 2017, https://english.alarabiya.net/en/features/2016/12/27/An-inside-look-at-a Gulf-Christian-community.html, (accessed 20th February 2018).
 Jonathan Luxmoore, ‘Bishop in Kuwait criticizes legislation restricting Christian churches”, Catholic News Service, 13th March 2012, http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2012/bishop-in-kuwait-criticizes legislation-restricting-christian-churches.cfm, (accessed 15th March 2018).
 Kuwait’s Constitution of 1962, Reinstated in 1992, constituteproject.org, https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Kuwait_1992.pdf?lang=en, (accessed 21st February 2018).
 Global Legal Research Directorate and Hanibal Goitom, ‘Kuwait,’ Laws Criminalizing Apostasy, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/law/help/apostasy/#kuwait, (accessed 18th February 2018).
 Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, op. cit.
 S. Usher, ‘Kuwait academic charged with blasphemy over TV interview’, BBC, 14th April 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36046706, (accessed 21st February 2018).
 ‘Kuwaiti academic charged with blasphemy for Quran comments’, The New Arab, 15th April 2016, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/4/15/kuwaiti-academic-charged-with blasphemy-for-qu-ran-comments, (accessed 24th February 2018).
 J. Weinberg, ‘Blasphemy Charges Against Philosopher Dismissed’, Daily Nous, June 1st, 2016, http://dailynous.com/2016/06/01/blasphemy-charges-against-philosopher-dismissed/, (accessed 24th February 2018).
 ‘Saudi Arabia moves to silence hate preacher for insulting deceased Kuwaiti Shia actor’, The New Arab, 13th August 2017, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/blog/2017/8/13/riyadh moves-to-silence-cleric-for-insulting-deceased-actor, (accessed 24th February 2018).
 ‘Kuwait’s Shia MPs boycott parliament session’, Middle East Eye, 13th January 2016, http://www.middle-easteye.net/news/kuwaits-shia-mps-boycott-parliament-session 1636491037, (accessed 24th February 2018).
 ‘Kuwait commutes death sentence of ‘pro-Iran cell leader’’, Middle East Eye, 18th June 2017, http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/kuwait-commutes-death-sentence-pro-iran-cell leader-502808185, (accessed 24th February 2018).
 K. Gibbs, ‘Indian Pastor arrested in Kuwait faces judgement Sunday’, British-Pakistani Christian Association, 18th November 2017, https://www.britishpakistanichristians.org/blog/indian-pastor-arrested-in-kuwait-faces-judgement-sunday, (accessed 12th February 2018).
 ‘Indian Pastor accused of blasphemy set free by Kuwaiti authorities’, Pakistan Christian Post, 4th December 2017, http://www.pakistanchristianpost.com/detail.php?communityid=912, (accessed 21st February 2018).