The National Evangelical Church in Kuwait is nestled on a quiet cul-de-sac in the city, right off a long stretch of coastal highway that separates the chapel from the Arabian Gulf. The structure is one of the last remnants of Kuwait’s pre-oil urban landscape, built by American missionaries in 1931 using mostly mud and rocks taken from the sea. It is here we find the office of Rev. Amanuel B. Ghareeb, the head of Kuwait’s Evangelical Church.
Father Amanuel, as he is sometimes called by his congregants, assumed the position of Reverend in 1999, having just turned forty-nine-years-old. Unlike his predecessor, however, the announcement of his post made headlines across Kuwait: for the first time in the country’s history, a Kuwaiti had been selected as head of a church.
Ghareeb spent twenty-five years as a civil servant in the oil sector, and was a self-described nominal Christian, before receiving his call to ministry in 1986: what he called his ‘born-again’ experience. His ordination fell on a chilly Friday evening on 8 January, 1999.
The ordination was a turning point in his life and a momentous occasion for this tiny community of indigenous Christians. Attendees including ambassadors, academics, and members of the clergy watched as he kneeled before the Head of the Evangelical Synod of Syria and Lebanon, who officiated his transition into a fully-fledged Reverend.
Cheers and applause filled the hall that night as Ghareeb stood, for the first time, as head of Kuwait’s Evangelical Church. Ghareeb, now 68, has tried to mitigate the concerns of his community for almost two decades. As the first-ever Kuwaiti priest, he explains that a heavier burden has been placed on his shoulders than that of his predecessors. And space is at the forefront of his agenda.
Today, Christians residing in Kuwait account for more than twenty percent of the total population: around 900,000 in total, of which less than 200 are actual citizens.
Since assuming his role, Ghareeb has consistently lobbied the government for more sites to build churches. He explains that the current seven licensed churches can’t keep up with the staggering number of visitors that regularly pour through their doors to worship.
But in 2016, several MPs rejected the Municipality’s plans to allocate land for additional churches, claiming it would contradict Shariah law, which is stated as the main (but not the sole) source of legislation in Article Two of the constitution.
Ghareeb lets out a deep sigh. “It’s a matter of time,” he says, almost quixotically.
The Kuwait Nationality Law was promulgated in 1959 as the country was experiencing its first oil boom.
Over the years, a series of amendments were made to the law, including one in 1982, which stipulated that only Muslims (or Muslim converts) could obtain citizenship by naturalization.
While Ghareeb sees this as a key contributor to the population decline of the indigenous Christian community, not everyone shares his concern. “Personally, I can’t say that I worry much, if at all, about a population decrease,” said Samer Shammas, a banker and second cousin to the Reverend.
Shammas belongs to Kuwait’s first Christian family. His grandfather immigrated from Turkey in 1919, and worked with the American Missionaries who eventually founded the Evangelical Church.
In 2012, during an especially politically-charged time, Shammas was growing increasingly frustrated with a minority group in Kuwait that criticised public celebrations of Christian holidays.
They called for the removal of Christmas trees from public spaces and claimed that it was haram (forbidden) to wish Christians a Merry Christmas.
As a response, he published an article in Al Qabas newspaper: A Message from a Kuwaiti Christian. In the article, Samer announced his intention to run for parliament, which would have made him the first non-Muslim to do so since the establishment of the National Assembly.
“I knew I’d never win, but I wanted to prove a point,” explained Samer.
“I wanted to send a message that Kuwait is an open society and our constitution does not discriminate between different religions.”
Although Samer decided not to run in the end, his article received a positive response, with many Kuwaitis welcoming the idea of a Christian MP including Waleed Al Rujaib, a Kuwaiti novelist, and popular liberal columnist, Iqbal Al Ahmad.
Ghareeb has appeared on a variety of local and regional news programs, to promote a positive image of Kuwait’s Christian community as well as educate the masses about the tiny minority of Gulf Christians.
Many people are surprised to find out that Kuwaiti Christians exist.
Ghareeb’s main message of course, is that the National Evangelical Church stands as a testament to the level of religious freedom enjoyed in Kuwait.
It’s also a microcosm of a democracy, he insists proudly. Church elections typically occur every two years for the reverend position, and a two-third majority vote is required to win. And while the next elections cycle should take place in 2019, Ghareeb isn’t worried about losing his title. “After my election in 1999, the Church decided that I should maintain the position indefinitely.”
He tugs at the clerical collar sewn into his dishdasha before adding, with a smile: “It was for the best, they said since I’m a Kuwaiti.”