The government pursued several cases against Salafist cleric Othman Al-Khamees for allegedly insulting Shia doctrine during a television interview and in social media messages dating back to 2015. In January an appeals court overturned a criminal court ruling that had fined Al-Khamees 20,000 KD ($66,400). The Court of Cassation further upheld the acquittal in April. In the same month, the criminal court also acquitted Al-Khamees in another case in which he was accused of insulting Shia doctrine.
In March an appeals court upheld a lower court’s April 2016 acquittal of Sara al-Drees after she was sued by several private citizens for social media postings questioning the tenets of Islamic practice.
According to press reports, in November the court of misdemeanors convicted journalist and secular activist Abdul Aziz Abdullah al-Qenaei in a blasphemy case for “contempt of Islam” and “slander of sharia” and sentenced him to six-months imprisonment with labor and immediate effect. Al-Qenaei’s sentence was suspended pending the appeal process in the higher courts.
The MOI and the MAIA continued to caution imams to ensure their sermons were consistent with the general law on political speech and to avoid discussion of political issues in their sermons or at any other time while in the country. As per MAIA policy, the government continued to appoint all new Sunni imams and to monitor and provide the text of weekly sermons preached at Sunni mosques. Sunni imams were able to add to the content of the sermon but needed to ensure their content adhered to the laws on political speech and avoided stoking sectarianism. The government vetted every Sunni imam to ensure compliance with the government’s view of moderate and tolerant religious preaching and sermons. The government also funded Sunni religious institutions, including mosques. In contrast, Shia clerics were usually not officially monitored and had the freedom to write their own sermons as long as they did not violate existing laws or instigate sectarianism. The Shia community also had the freedom to pick its own clerics without government oversight but generally did not receive funding from the state for religious institutions and mosques. Some Shia mosques, however, requested government assistance and received funds to pay for salaries and maintenance of their facilities.
In June the government took steps to block religious figures on a terrorist list, issued by four Arab states (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) involved in a diplomatic dispute with Qatar, from entering the country. Most of the religious figures that faced travel bans were Salafists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Qatar. Sources in religious groups indicated in August that the MOI and the MAIA were devising a new mechanism to issue entry visas for religious leaders and clerics.
In September news outlets reported three visiting Shia clerics, one from Saudi Arabia and two from Iraq, were invited to speak at Ashura events but were prohibited from delivering sermons and ordered to leave the country by the MOI. The two Iraqi clerics were sponsored by local Shia mosques while the Saudi cleric did not need sponsorship to enter the country. Upon their arrival, current and former members of parliament tweeted that the clerics were on record for previously insulting the Prophet’s wives and companions. As the news circulated in social media, it came to the attention of the MOI, which took action.
The MAIA interviewed several imams whom sources said were considered to have made provocative statements harmful to national unity. Some imams were fined and received temporary suspensions while others were cleared of misconduct. In February the court of appeals overturned the Criminal Court’s September 2016 acquittal of Shia cleric Hussain al-Matooq on charges that he had spoken disparagingly about the government in one of his Friday sermons in 2015, and fined him 20,000 KD ($66,400).
Religious groups were required to obtain licenses from their respective municipalities for commemorations, and the municipal government retained the right to withdraw the license of any husseiniyas (a Shia hall for religious commemorations) not complying with the municipality’s rules.
Citing security concerns, the government kept in place the ban on outdoor religious observances, instituted following the bombing of the Imam al Sadeq Mosque in 2015, which killed 27 persons. All Ashura activities for the Shia community were required to be conducted inside closed structures rather than at outside locations. The government did not permit public reenactments of the martyrdom of Hussein or public marches in commemoration of Ashura. The government continued to station security forces outside some Sunni Mosques and all Shia and Christian religious venues during times of worship throughout the year as a deterrent to possible further attacks. The government also continued to provide security to Shia neighborhoods during Muharram and Ashura.
Authorities continued to prohibit churches from displaying exterior signs, such as a cross or the congregation’s name.
Some Shia leaders said discrimination continued to prevent Shia from obtaining training for clerical positions as well as leadership positions in public sector organizations, including the police force and the military/security apparatus.
The government continued to prevent the establishment of Shia religious training institutions. Shia who wanted religious training had to seek training and education abroad. The College of Islamic Law at Kuwait University, the country’s only institution to train imams, provided some Shia jurisprudence courses but did not permit Shia professors on its faculty.
The government continued to permit registered Christian churches to import religious materials for use by their congregations under the condition that none of the content insulted Islam. Congregations who needed material in languages other than Arabic or English reported no problems importing their materials on their own. Members of other religious groups also stated they did not face any major issues importing religious materials for their congregations as long as they were doing so privately and did not try to sell the materials in public stores; no public shops could legally import, display, or sell non-Islamic religious literature.
The MOI provided security and protection for licensed places of worship, the MOSAL issued visas for clergy and other staff, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the municipality of Kuwait handled building permits and land issues. The government said it received no applications for construction of new churches from religious groups during the year. The Armenian Orthodox church successfully bought a new property and started operating from the new church during the year. The Greek Orthodox Church successfully negotiated the purchase of 38 percent ownership of its property, but church leadership still feared expulsion from the property. They highlighted that if the current owner died, the inheritors stood to make more money by redeveloping the property than by continuing to rent it to the church.
Some religious groups without a licensed place of worship stated they could conduct worship services without government interference provided they did not disturb their neighbors or violate laws regarding assembly and proselytizing. The government continued to allow such groups to operate in rented villas, private homes, or the facilities of registered churches. Citing security concerns, authorities stated they would take action against unlicensed mosques. The government tasked the MAIA, the MOI, the municipality of Kuwait, and other agencies with finding solutions to end the use of illegal mosques. During the year, the government raided makeshift mosques in remote areas and shut them down for operating without proper licenses.
Shia Muslims reported a continued lack of facilities for worship and difficulties obtaining permission to construct new facilities, caused by the government’s delay in approving repairs to existing mosques or constructing new ones. They said the government had granted licenses and approved the construction of fewer than 10 new Shia mosques since 2001. According to the government, there were 51 Shia mosques, with one new Shia mosque having opened during the year. There were also 20-30 husseiniyas registered with MOI and thousands of smaller Shia gatherings that took place in private homes. Similar to Shia mosques, the MAIA did not monitor the husseiniyas and the private gatherings.
The Ministry of Education continued to ban the use as instructional material of any fiction or nonfiction books and textbooks referring to the Holocaust or Israel. The ministry permitted public schools to teach and celebrate only Islamic holidays. The government did not interfere with informal religious instruction inside private homes and on church compounds.
The National Evangelical Church (NEC) requested accreditation for its school, which would enable students to receive religious education while fulfilling Kuwaiti requirements, and allow school graduates to move on to higher education. The NEC had not received a response to their request from the authorities by year’s end. The Bohra community opened an accredited school for its community. Other groups conducted religious studies in their places of worship, but have either not requested accreditation or did not receive a response to their request.
Some Muslim clerics continued to express disapproval of the celebration of non-Islamic holidays and called for more government action to restrict public expression of these holidays; no legislation to limit public expression was initiated during the year.
While Shia community members expressed gratitude for the added security provided by authorities for their events, they stated that an effort by law enforcement to capture fugitive members of the Abdali Cell, a group that the government had charged with spying for Iran and Lebanese Hizballah to carry out aggression against the country, put undue hardship on the Shia community. These included random security checks and intrusions into their homes by law enforcement authorities. In August authorities arrested 12 of the 14 members of the cell who had fled; two remained at large. Shia sources stated the authorities’ actions were construed by the Shia community as placing blame on the entire community for the acts of a few criminals.
Even though the Shia make up an estimated 30 percent of the population, they remained underrepresented in all segments of government: six of 50 members in parliament, one of 16 cabinet members, one of six Amiri Diwan advisors, and disproportionately lower numbers of senior officers in the military and police force. Shia community leaders repeatedly complained about a glass ceiling in promotions and difficulties in getting jobs, as well as the lack of new places to worship, which they said created an oppressive environment for their community.
According to Shia leaders, the lack of Shia imams continued to limit their ability to staff Shia courts, causing a backlog of personal status and family cases. To address the backlog and shortage of staff, an ad hoc council created by the government under the regular marital issues court to apply Shia jurisprudence continued to function. The establishment of a Shia Court of Cassation, approved in 2003, remained delayed, according to Shia leaders, because appropriate training for Shia to staff it was unavailable.
Although the law does not prohibit apostasy, the government continued its policy of not issuing new official documents for recording a change in religion. When asked if there were any cases of conversion, religious leaders from some non-Muslim religious groups said they had not heard of any case of a Muslim desiring to change religion, while others said they would not convert a Muslim in Kuwait. All leaders, regardless of faith, stated they were free to practice their religion and that their sole mission was to take care of their existing community. A few leaders refused to speak about conversion.
The government continued to impose quotas on the number of clergy and staff of licensed religious groups entering the country but the government granted additional slots upon request. The government continued to require foreign leaders of unregistered religious groups to enter the country as nonreligious workers. They then had to minister to their congregations outside the regular hours of their nonreligious employment.
Members of non-Abrahamic faiths stated that they remained free to practice their religion in private, but faced harassment and potential prosecution if they practiced their faith in public. Expatriates of non-Abrahamic religions could not have public places of worship nor marry in Kuwait, and they remained subject to sharia if family matters were taken to court. Most members of these communities indicated they were able to practice their faith within their communities, but practiced a discreet form of self-censorship that allowed them to avoid conflict with authorities. In many cases, members of these religious groups stated they resolved conflict internally within their community rather than take legal action in the courts where they would be subject to sharia.
In an attempt to keep a low profile, minority religious communities stated they did not request permission for public celebrations from authorities (which would be rejected if applied for) and refrained from discussing issues such as proselytizing (which is part of their religious doctrine but considered illegal by the law). They said they were selective in the religious materials they imported and even more selective of the persons who were given access to them. They said they did not allow these materials to be circulated outside their congregations. Many of these groups did not advertise religious events or gatherings publicly to avoid unwanted attention to their organizations both from the public and government authorities. Representatives of registered churches stated the government was generally tolerant and respectful of their faith.