Christian-in-the-cabinet suggestion a hot topic in Kuwait

Pastor's 'wish' to have a senior Christian government minister wins some support, but many are sceptical.

Kuwaiti Christian pastor Rev.Amanuel Gharib talks to The National in his office at The National Evangelical Church in Kuwait City on Sunday, Dec. 28, 2008. “It would be good if they chose a Christian (in the Cabinet) because he would be the voice to speak for minorities,” Rev Ghareb said.(Photo:Gustavo Ferrari/The National)

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KUWAIT CITY // The "wish" of a Kuwaiti pastor to have a Christian in the cabinet has attracted the attention of the media, winning the support of some, but any non-Muslim minister will have a tougher time winning over parliament's hardline Islamists. "The journalist, who was interviewing me about a week ago, asked about having a Christian minister," said the Rev Amanuel Ghareb, who said he was the only pastor in the Arabian Peninsula with local citizenship. "I said we have people who could be chosen to be ministers. They are educated people. So this is my answer: why not? It was a wish. We are not asking for it."

But Mr Ghareb's "wish" snowballed. Television crews and journalists descended on his church for interviews and newspaper opinion columns mulled the idea. The reappointed prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Al Sabah, will choose the new cabinet soon. The last one resigned in November when MPs demanded to question the prime minister. Because of their small population, selection for the cabinet is the only way Kuwait's 150 Christian citizens can have a representative in the National Assembly.

About 460,000 Christians, mostly foreigners, now live in Kuwait, but their path to citizenship of the country is blocked. Larger tribal and sectarian citizen groups dominate the parliament's elections. "It would be good if they chose a Christian, because he would be the voice to speak for minorities," the Rev Ghareb said. "I'm very supportive," said Muna al Fuzai, a columnist for the Kuwait Times, who backed the idea in an opinion piece on Sunday.

Christians here are well-educated, Ms al Fuzai said. "As citizens, we believe they should be given a chance, just like the tribes, the Islamists and the liberals all got their chances. "One of their rights is to have a representative. I know some people will react in a different way, and refuse a Christian minister." The country's conservative MPs are the censors Ms al Fuzai referred to. About half of parliament's 50 seats are held by Islamists, many of whom would oppose Christian involvement in the assembly.

Because they are charged with "supervising" the government, MPs can make life difficult for ministers with constant questioning. The parliament can also instigate votes of no confidence. "The most important issue for selecting a minister is that he must be qualified: he must be honest and powerful - a decision-maker," said Abdullatif al Ameeri, an MP for the Islamic Salafi Alliance. But Mr al Ameeri's criteria may not extend to Christians.

"This issue has not been raised at all," he said, "but in my personal opinion the bloc would refuse this nomination. Even if he is Muslim, and we see that he is not a genuine Muslim - who goes by the Islamic sharia - we might have an objection to him." Mr al Ameeri said the cabinet's make-up should be proportionally based on the larger sectarian and tribal groups. "The percentage of Christians in Kuwait is very low, so according to the quotation system they might not become ministers."

Mr Ghareb is not surprised by Mr al Ameeri's suspicion that the Salafi bloc would reject a Christian minister. "The Salafis would be against it, of course, because they believe that we are infidels," he said. "They are also against having churches in the country." But Christians are treated fairly in Kuwait, Mr Ghareb said. The government is generous with the church, and Muslims visit him to donate money. "They believe they have to support the church as they support mosques," he said. "These are a tolerant people. Open-minded."