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An inside look at the native Christian community of Kuwait

Kuwait's first Christian pastor Amanuel Benjamin Ghareeb sits in his office at the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait 27 January 2001 in Kuwait City. (AFP)

Kuwait’s first Christian pastor Amanuel Benjamin Ghareeb remembers sitting down for a test on an Islamic subject during his secondary school years and being surprised that he outperformed his young Muslim peers.

That was more than 50 years ago and now the 66-year-old Ghareeb says times have changed.

Kuwait is the only GCC country besides Bahrain to have a local Christian population who hold citizenship. They number around 260 citizens in Kuwait while Bahrain has nearly 1,000.

First Christian pastor Amanuel Benjamin Ghareeb prays on January 8, 1999 while his wife and children stand in the church pews behind him. (Reuters)

“Most of the Christian families in Kuwait and Bahrain have their roots from southeastern Turkey while some came from either Iraq or Palestine. The numbers decreased since there was a change in Kuwait’s citizenship law in 1982 after they excluded Christians from naturalization,” Ghareeb told Al Arabiya English.

By some estimates, there are 12 families who identify as Christian-born Kuwaitis and are believed to have had equal rights compared to their Muslim countrymen.

Christian-Gulf social, political representation

Still, it is rare for there to be talk about the trials and tribulations of non-Muslim minorities who are citizens of the Arab Gulf states as the widely-portrayed image of Gulf citizens is usually as either Sunni or Shiite Muslims.

A landmark event in Kuwait’s Christian community took place on January 8, 1999 when Ghareeb himself was ordained as priest and pastor of the country’s National Evangelical Church, making him the first and only Gulf-Arab Christian with that title.

“We all feel proud of being Kuwaitis,” he said at the time. “We were among those who stayed here during the Iraqi occupation [in 1990].”

Kuwaiti Christians inter the National Evangelical Church in Kuwait City 25 December 2004. (AFP)

But for Christian representation in Kuwait’s political scene, the same cannot be said. No Christian has ever been elected to the country’s National Assembly, which recently saw the return of the country’s Muslim Brotherhood group after years of boycott.

Still, Ghareeb said Kuwaiti Christians deny that their community is barred from enjoying certain civil and political rights.

When asked whether the idea of implementing a quota of Christian representation should be allowed in parliament, similar to Lebanon, Ghareeb replied with a resounding rejection.

“Our constitution clearly states that any Kuwaiti Christian is free to nominate him or herself and run for local elections. And if one day the general population accepts to elect one of us, then great. But we do not want an enforced representation without an election,” Ghareeb said.

Do Kuwaiti Christians feel safe?

Muslim-Christian relationships have been tested in recent years given the rise of Islamophobia in the west amid extremist attacks by groups such as ISIS targeting Christians in the east.

Nearly a year ago, a bombing at Cairo’s largest Coptic cathedral killed at least 25 people and wounded 49, many of them women and children attending Sunday mass, in the deadliest attack on Egypt’s Christian minority in years.

This event caused some concerns for Kuwaiti Christians, the pastor said.

“With the latest developments in the region in regards to the religious polarization, some of us have been affected obviously. But we thank God that we have wise leadership that understands and protects the internal situation in Kuwait. We’ve seen our ministry of interior increase protection around our churches during Christmas and soon for New Year’s as well.”

Christians immigrants living in Kuwait arrive to the Holy Family Cathedral to attend Christmas mass, in Kuwait City, on December 25, 2014. (AFP)

Under educational laws in Kuwait, non-Muslim students at both government and private schools in Kuwait are exempt from attending Islamic classes.

Should Kuwaiti Christians have equal opportunities to study their religion as part of education?

Ghareeb doesn’t think so: “Under the current situation, both in Kuwait and in the region, the answer is ‘no.’ This is unfavorable at the moment.”

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Last Update: Monday, 25 December 2017 KSA 21:00 - GMT 18:00
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An inside look at the native Christian community of Kuwait
Kuwait’s first Christian pastor Amanuel Benjamin Ghareeb talks exclusively to Al Arabiya English
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