Church in Kuwait waiting for land

Leader of Greek Catholics says fundamentalist members of municipal council are blocking permission despite government's go-ahead.

KUWAIT CITY // Religious hardliners on the Kuwait City municipal council are preventing Christians from obtaining land to build houses of worship, the leader of the Greek Catholic Church here said.

"The municipal council is the big problem preventing us from getting land; not all of the members, just the Islamic fundamentalists," said Archimandrite Boutro Gharib this week after the municipal council blocked an attempt by the church to acquire land in Mahboula, an area in the Ahmadi governorate south of Kuwait City.

"The government and even the emir himself have given their approval and blessing for our church to have a property," Mr Gharib said. "The council didn't give us any reason."

Mr Gharib said his church has been asking for land for several years to relieve overcrowding in the villa where they currently worship. He said the municipal council has turned down their request every time.

Mohammed al Hadiya, a member of the council, denied there was religious discrimination at play.

"Don't listen to the rumours. We don't mind about the church - the issue is about the area where they want to build," said Mr al Hadiya. "There is not enough parking in that place. It would be too crowded."

Mr al Hadiya said the council did not vote against building a church but in favour of changing the proposed site. After the municipality selects another area, the council will vote on the proposal again, he said.

"This is the first time we have dealt with this request," Mr al Hadiya said. He said the suggestion that there are extremists on the municipal council is "not correct", and stressed that it "respects all religions".

The church said the government had proposed an area of 7,500 square metres that included land for buildings and parking. Elian Farah, a board member of the Greek Catholic Church, said the government suggested parishioners use the parking facilities of two schools that are being built nearby on the weekends and the evenings in addition to their dedicated parking area.

Mr al Hadiya said the council did not consider a specific land area in their deliberations.

"We're looking for a better place for people to pray," said Mane al Ajami, the chairman of a committee in the Ahmadi governorate that gives recommendations to the council on how land should be used. He said a previous decision to allocate land for school parking would have to be cancelled before a church could be built on the proposed site.

"This is different from what we have been told," Mr Farah said.

Archimandrite Gharib said his church is paying 1,900 Kuwaiti dinars (Dh25,000) a month for a villa that is shared by two other congregations. He said if they cannot find land soon, the church will have to close. "It's all excuses. It's all lies," he said. "Every time they promise, but all their promises are for nothing."

Jassim al Randi, the manager of the chairman of the council's office, said the suggestion that the council has refused land for the church is "propaganda". He said if an area is selected that does not conflict with car parks, schools or government buildings, the council will approve the proposal within two or three weeks.

Jassim al Mubaraki, head of the Arab world department at the ministry of foreign affairs, who has been liaising with the church on behalf of the government for about a year, said the church's failure to secure land is "a technical issue".

"They oppose maybe the size of the land itself," Mr Mubaraki said. "We will find a solution - this is not finished yet." Kuwait is, and will remain, a country where religion is practised freely, he said.

The Greek Catholic community here, which consists of around 650 families, is not the only Christian group struggling to find space to worship in Kuwait. Around 460,000 Christians share four official churches - two Catholic, an Evangelical and an Anglican - and one more Coptic church is under construction.

Bishop Camillo Ballin, the spiritual leader of Kuwait's Catholics, recently said his church hosts 46 services every week, 28 of which are crammed into Saturday.

"There are four official places of worship, and up to 60 congregations who worship outside in villas, hotels and schools," said Andrew Thompson, the Anglican chaplain to Kuwait from 2006 to 2010, who is now based in Abu Dhabi.

Kuwait is in a perpetual state of tension between religious hardliners and moderates, and giving permission for Christians to build churches would be like waving a "red rag" to Wahhabis, who believe Islam should be the only religion practised in Arabia, Rev Thompson said.

"We found the higher levels of government say yes and the lower levels of government say no" to new churches, he said, adding that the municipality is controlled by religious fundamentalists.

The one success the Christian community has had in the past 40 years was when the Egyptian Copts secured land for a new church, but even they have had trouble getting a building permit, Rev Thompson said. "We know what's going on - it's appeasement."