Friday, 8 January 2010
‘Christians enjoy religious freedom’
Church-State ties excellent
Reverend Amanuel Benjamin Ghareeb has been the Pastor and caretaker of the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait for a decade. He was ordained on Jan. 8, 1999 in what was considered a unique event in the history of the Evangelical community of Kuwait.
What may be new information to many, Reverend Ghareeb is a Kuwaiti citizen. He was born in Kuwait in 1950 and has been living peacefully among his people, Muslims and Christians, throughout the country’s many ups and downs. This is what made his ordination as a Pastor special in the memories of many Christians as he was the first Gulf Arab to be designated for the Church. According to the Reverend minister, there are currently approximately 200 Christian Kuwaiti citizens residing in the country.
After graduating from the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of Cairo in 1989, Reverend Ghareeb returned to Kuwait where he stayed, along with his family and fellow faithful, even through the Iraqi occupation. He has helped restore the country as well as bring the Christian community back together after its liberation.
In an insightful interview with the Arab Times, Reverend Ghareeb talks about the history of Christianity in Kuwait, the many faithful of various denominations residing in the country, the meaning of Evangelical Christianity as well as the recent relationship and communication developments between the Muslims and Christians who reside here.
Q: What are the origins of Kuwaiti Christians who were naturalized during the establishment of Kuwait?
A: Kuwaiti Christians are originally Christian families who immigrated like any other family to this region. The number of Kuwaiti Christians is now around 150-200 among approximately 450,000 Christians from all over the world.
Most of Kuwait’s local Christians belong to 12 large families. As you know, Kuwait comprises mainly of people who came from three different sources - from Saudi Arabia, from Iraq and from Iran. The first Christian families came from southeast Turkey and Iraq and they have been living in Kuwait for over 90 years and speak the Kuwaiti Arabic dialect. Other families have come from Palestine, such as Al-Shuhaibar family, and a few from Lebanon and Syria.
According to the citizenship law, whoever was in Kuwait before 1920 is considered Kuwaiti and whoever came after the 1940s was naturalized. At least one Christian family was living here before 1920.
Before the discovery of oil, the process of naturalization was not available because Kuwait was a simple country and there were no passports. After the discovery of oil, the number of people increased considerably and the leadership wanted to organize the country so they started to issue passports for identification.
Then, in 1959, the citizenship law was passed. As you know before 1961 Kuwait was a British protectorate according to an agreement between Kuwait and Britain. They cancelled this agreement on June 19, 1961 which we consider the National Day of Kuwait.
Q: What is the history of Christianity in Kuwait?
A: Kuwait is the land of abundance. God has blessed Kuwait and gave her a wise leadership from its onset. The people of Kuwait have welcomed anyone who has come from abroad to make a living and they respect everyone provided they abide by the laws and rules of the country. We have plenty of stories of success by people who came from all over the world.
The history of Christians in Kuwait began in the early 1900’s when Reverend Dr Samuel Zwemer and Reverend Fred Barney who were missionaries from the Reformed Church of America arrived. Permission was granted in 1911 by Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah to begin medical work in Kuwait and former American Mission Hospital was established in 1913.
Elder Yacoub Shammas Ibrahim was the first Arab Evangelist to come to Kuwait in 1919. He came as part of the Arabian Mission of the Reformed Church of America. In 1931, within the mission’s compound, the Evangelical Church was built and is considered the first Church built in Kuwait during modern times.
However, if we go back in history, Failaka Island contains the remnants of a Church dating to perhaps as early as the 5th or 6th century when the Hellenes settled on the island according to the crosses that form part of the structural decoration that were found at Al-Khazna Hill area on the Island.
Kuwait Oil Company was established in 1934 as a partnership between Gulf oil and British Petroleum. It was a foreign company so the majority of the staff were Christians. They built two Churches in Ahmadi in the late 1940s at the beginning of oil exports. One is called Saint Paul’s Church which belongs to the Anglicans and the other belongs to the Catholics and is called “Our Lady of Arabia”.
Up until now, the two Churches are still maintained by the Kuwaiti government through Kuwait Oil Company and people are still worshipping God in these two Churches. In the late 1950s, the Catholic Church in Kuwait City was built and the land on which it was built was a gift bestowed by the previous ruler of Kuwait, Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah.
In the 1960s, the Coptic Orthodox Christians conducted their prayers in a rented house near the Catholic Church. It was demolished due to renovations recently; however, land was given to them in Hawalli to build their new Church. In the 1960s and 70s the Greek Orthodox came and also rented villas to be remodeled into Churches as well as the Armenian Orthodox.
Q: What are the Christian denominations that are currently available in Kuwait?
A: The number of established Churches in Kuwait is currently seven; however, there are 85 prayer groups of various Evangelical denominations that worship in the Evangelical Compound. The Catholics, including the Maronite Christians, mostly come from Asian countries such as India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan as well as from Arab countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Palestine and Syria.
Also available in Kuwait is the Anglican Episcopalian Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church as well as the Greek Catholic Church.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between the Christians of Kuwait and the government?
A: We thank God that we as Christians in Kuwait enjoy a large amount of religious freedom. Kuwait’s Constitution states that “freedom of belief is absolute,” and that “the State protects the freedom of practicing religion in accordance with established customs, provided that it does not conflict with public policy or morals.”
In December 1999, the Bible Society in the Gulf Shop was built. So the Church even has an agreement with the Kuwaiti government to import books and gifts that nurture the faith of Christians of different backgrounds and languages.
Abiding by the rules of censorship of the Ministry of Information, books and Bibles written in 50 different languages are now available at the bookstore. The trust between us and the ministry is growing because they know us through our long history of working together.
The creation of the Islamic Christian Relations Council (ICRC) was also a huge step towards strengthening ties between the Muslims and Christians of Kuwait.
The Council’s establishment was announced in February 2009 and was an initiative by the National Consensus Movement run by our Shiite brothers. They approached the Church for the purpose of gathering all Muslims, Shiite and Sunni, and all Christians, the Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox.
The Council comprises of 11 Islamic and Christian scholars and authoritative figures such as Professor Mohammed Baker Al-Mohary who is the Council’s President, myself, Reverend Amanuel Ghareeb, the Vice-Resident; Professor Zuhair Abdul-Hadi Al-Mahmeed, who is the General Secretary and Sheikh Hussain Al-Azhary who is the Research and Consultancy Manager.
All the members agreed on the by-laws of the Council in order to strengthen relations and inter-religious dialogue between all the Muslims and Christians of Kuwait in order to cooperate and defend ourselves against any attacks on the two religions in the country and outside.
Our general targets include centering all actions and discussions from the principle of belief in and worship of One God; rallying rational energies to meet the various intellectual and societal challenges; establishing trust between the two faiths through various seminars and activities as well as providing consultation to decision makers in the Muslim and Christian communities by studying and analyzing intellectual and societal developments.
On Dec 23 last year, the Council members held a meeting to evaluate the visit that was made on Dec 14-16 to the Vatican in which they met with different councils in the Vatican such as the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Pontifical Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies.
It was a successful visit. We thank God we were able to introduce ourselves to them and build relations of cooperation. We invited them for a conference which will be held on November 2010 regarding Saint Mary and they promised to participate.
This year we are also planning to visit Egypt and meet with Muslim and Christian spiritual authorities such as Al-Azhar’s Sheikh and Mufti as well as Pope Shounuda.
Q: How did Evangelical Protestant Christianity arise and the main differences between this denomination and Catholicism?
A: This goes back to the middle ages or medieval times in the 15th century when corruption was very apparent in the Catholic Church and its teachings, which we, as Protestants, do not believe is according to the Bible. Martin Luther began the religious Protestant reformation in Germany.
He created the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517 which debated and criticized the Church and the Pope and challenged their authority by teaching that the Bible is the only source of divine knowledge. His original goal was to reform the Catholic Church from inside-out and he translated the Bible from Latin into the German language in order for it to be more accessible to the people.
Among Luther’s questionings in the Theses were the intercession of and devotion to the saints as well as the mandatory clerical celibacy. However, when he was faced with severe opposition from his Holiness the Pope and other authorities, he was obliged to start a new Church. There were movements prior to his which were quickly stopped. Nevertheless, Luther succeeded in spreading his thoughts of reformation in Germany. The reformation spread to the whole of Europe, England then North America.
From what I understand, there are two explanations to Protestant Christianity. During the trial of Martin Luther they told him that he had to deny his reformation principles. He told them that, unless they provided him with proof from the Bible itself that his thoughts were wrong, he would not retract his statements. “On this I stand,” he said. So, from this statement, they said that “he protested”. So his followers are the people who ‘protested’ the teachings of the Catholic Church and the Pope.
The second explanation is the literal meaning of Latin term ‘Protestarri’. ‘Testarri’ means ‘the text’ in Latin and ‘pro’ in Latin means ‘for’ in English. So the word means ‘For the Text’, meaning the people of that faith follow the Bible only, which is considered infallible, and refuse to accept any other teachings which are only considered traditions.
The reformation also took different forms pertaining to different countries, but the main principles of Luther remained especially the authority and infallibility of the Bible. Therefore the Protestant Church does not have as much control over the interpretation of religion as the Catholics.
Evangelism is for the Protestant denominations only. Evangelism is a term that has two different meanings pertaining to the West and the Arab world. In the Arab world the term Evangelical is derived from the Arabic word ‘Injeeliya’. The term was first used in Egypt to define the Presbyterian Church which taught the ‘Injeel’ only. “Injeel’ is the Arabic word for Bible.
In the West, as far as I understand, the term Evangelical was used to define the group of Churches who concentrate on Evangelism more than other teachings. So they can say “so and so Church is Evangelical and so and so Church is not Evangelical”. According to the Bible, every Church should be Evangelical. The Church has many responsibilities but Evangelism is very important because these are the orders of Jesus Christ (PBUH).
Now there are various Protestant denominations whose followers worship in the NECK Compound.
Q: What main services does the Evangelical Church provide?
A: We have a variety of services that meet the spiritual and psychological needs of all age groups such as Sunday school, teenagers meeting, youth meeting, eagles meeting for recent university graduates as well as Al Salam International Academy, which is joint venture between, the Arabic Language Congregation and the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Kuwait. We also provide Thursday services to teach Church members of all ages, a nursery and a ministers’ training program.
The Church Diwaniya was built in order to communicate with people in the local community. Like every year we held a Christmas Diwaniya in 2009 where many people of Kuwait came to give us their well wishes. The Church also invites many high ranking Muslim and Christian authorities for Ghabqa (get-together) during Ramadan.
Name: Amanuel B. Y. Ghareeb
Date of birth: 9/1/1950
Place of birth: Kuwait
Marital status: Married
Certificate: 1. Bachelor of Science (Geology, Chemistry) from Kuwait University 1971; 2. Bachelor of Theological Sciences from Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo - 1989.
n Civilian Experience:
From 1/8/1971 to 1/3/1996: Worked in the Ministry of Oil as geologist, senior geologist, controller of drilling and production and finally acting IT manager.
n Church Experience:
1979-1991: Member of Church’s Council (by election)
1991: Vice president of Church’s Council.
1997-1997: Joint Administrator of The National Evangelical Church in Kuwait.
12/10/1992: Elected and ordained as Church Ruling Elder.
1991-1996: Elected as a member of Executive Committee of The Fellowship of the Middle East Evangelical Churches (F.M.E.E.C).
1991 until now: Church representative in The Middle East Council of Churches (M.E.C.C); Member of Regional Advisory Committee of Bible Society in Gulf.
8/1/1999: Ordained and installed as The Church Pastor.
15/2/1999 until now: Selected as a coordinator between Arab Christian clergymen and government.
2005: Participated in founding The Christian Churches Fellowship In Kuwait then elected as Vice-Chairman of The Fellowship.
2009: Participated in founding Islamic Christian Relation Council then elected as Vice-Chairman of the Council.