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Christians integral part of Kuwait’s sociocultural tapestry – Earliest remnants of Christianity in Kuwait unearthed on Failaka

Pastor Amanuel Benyameen Ghareeb
Pastor Amanuel Benyameen Ghareeb

Christianity has had a long association with the Arabian Gulf. Both Bahrain and Kuwait have a small community of indigenous Christians, and members of this community serve their countries in various capacities. Rev Dr Fred Stickert , former Professor of Religion at Wartburg while commenting about the role of Christianity in the Arabian Gulf said, “The relatively favourable status of Christians in several countries is the result of a long history of benevolent contact, especially the role of churches in providing medical care and schools in the pre-petroleum era.”

Over centuries, Christianity has had a sporadic presence in the Gulf. With the spread of Islam, Christians came to be regarded as protected People of the Book. Julie Bonneric, Doctor of History and Archaeology of Medieval Islam at the Sorbonne, while writing about ‘Christianity in the Arabian Gulf’ notes “Christians have a long and ancient history in the Arabian Gulf, probably from the end of the 4th century until at least the 9th….The presence of Christians in the Gulf at that time is not surprising if one considers the well- known tolerance of most of the First Abbasid Caliphs such as al-Mahdi (775-785), Harun al-Rashid (786-809) or al- Mamun (830-833). Even if the situation of Christians was closely dependent on decisions made by Muslim rulers, Christians occupied important positions within the Caliph’s administration and at the court (they were philosophers, physicians, writers…), testifying that Muslims and Christians used to live together.”

Historically, Christianity had an early presence in Kuwait. One of the earliest remnants of Christianity in Kuwait was unearthed on Failaka, off the shore of mainland Kuwait at a site known as Al-Qusur. In 1989, the French archaeological mission working on the island discovered and excavated a church that dates to the 5th century.

According to the website of Kuwait archaeology, the centre of Al-Qusur was a monastery with a church surrounded by a densely settled area. This church formed the focal part of a Nestorian Christian community that lived on the island. The second more recent arrival of Christianity in Kuwait goes back to the beginning of the 20th century when the Arabian Mission of the Reformed Church in America was permitted to set up a hospital in Kuwait.

The establishment of the hospital was followed by the arrival of Christians from other parts of the Middle East. With time, these Christians became an integral part of the sociocultural tapestry of Kuwait. Later, after the discovery of oil, migrant workers from Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, India and Egypt came to Kuwait bringing with them the Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Church of South India and many other denominations of Christianity.

The church formed by the American Missionaries in Kuwait later known as The National Evangelical Church continued its journey with faith until a watershed moment in 1999 when Elder Amanuel Benyameen Ghareeb, a Kuwaiti Christian was elected and installed to pastor the church.

Arab Times caught up with Pastor Amanuel Benyameen Ghareeb, the first Gulf Arab to head a Protestant Church as he talks about the presence of Christianity in Kuwait, the origins of the indigenous Kuwaiti Christian population and their journey with faith.

Question: How many Christians are there in Kuwait, and what is the ethnic break up of this sect of society?

Answer: I was under the impression that Indians make up the largest number of Christians in Kuwait, but I was surprised to find out that it is the Filipinos who form the majority.

Q: But how many Christians are there in Kuwait?

A: I knew there were around 500,000 Christians in Kuwait, but recently I read in Al Qabas, that the numbers add up to 774,406. That is the latest figure. But you know, the figures keep changing, people keep coming and going. I believe this is the most recent statistics that we have at our disposal.

Q: What is the percentage of Kuwaiti Christian in this? Although, I don’t think percentage is the right word to use in this context because the numbers are very small. How many Kuwaiti Christians are there in the country?

A: As far as recent statistics go, and I got my information from the same source, Kuwaitis make up around .02% of the Christians in the country. The actual numbers as mentioned in the Report of Religious Freedom that was released by the State Department of the United States showed 264 persons.

Q: If we just rewind a bit, how did Christianity come to Kuwait?

A: Christianity arrived in Kuwait in two stages. The first stage happened a long time ago and this is related to the discovery of the remnants of an old church on Failaka. There are other remnants as well that have been discovered here in mainland Kuwait. This stage goes back to the 6th century. It is believed that this Church was built by the military garrison that was stationed on Failaka. You can find out more about this from the Idatarat al athar at the National Council of Culture, Arts and Letters. They have the exact dates. And the second stage is more recent. It was around a hundred years ago or a little more than a hundred years when the first American Missionaries of Reformed Church in America arrived in Kuwait after they were invited by Sheikh Mubarak Al Kabir to provide medical service. These missionaries built a small clinic. With time, this grew into two hospitals for men and women. The people who worked in the clinic had Arab and Indian assistants, who were Christians. They helped to build this building which is the Evangelical Church in 1931 to provide Christians a safe place for worship. Prior to that, Christians in Kuwait offered prayers at home. In fact, the first Arabiclanguage service took place in 1926 in a Christian home in Kuwait.

Q: So there was no church here till 1931?

A: No, there was no church here in those days. In fact, one can say that the Evangelical Church was the first church to be built in Kuwait in recent times.

Q: So it is the American Missionaries who brought Christianity to Kuwait?

A: Yes. Specifically, it was the Arabian Mission of the Reformed Church in America who brought Christianity to Kuwait. The first missionaries were medical doctors and nurses, who were assisted by other professional nurses from India and so on. They trained some Kuwaitis in the hospital to work with them as well, but these Kuwaitis were not Christians. They were Muslims.

Q: If I am not wrong Sheikh Mubarak took a long time to take the decision of allowing the missionaries into Kuwait. Like the other Gulf states, he was a bit apprehensive that they would take their role as missionaries more aggressively than their role as medical practitioners. He agreed after much thought.

A: Yes. This is part of history.

Q: But it also showed him as an enlightened ruler who wanted to improve health facilities for his people.

A: Yes. Absolutely. He was keen to provide modern medical treatment to his people with the help of medically qualified people and not through the usual practices.

Q: Is it right that during the rule of Sheikh Mubarak, the emphasis of the American missionaries was more on health care than on evangelization.

A: Yes that is right, but they did carry on their religious practices. The missionaries had to pray every day in the morning before they started work, and they also arranged for Bible reading sessions in the hospital for the patients.

Q: When did the first Evangelists arrive in Kuwait?

A: You can say around 1919 when late Yaqoub Shamas who joined the American Mission Hospital came to Kuwait. He was in charge of selling Bibles in the marketplace.

Q: He sold Bibles in the market in Kuwait. That’s interesting.

A: Yes. In those days, there used to be a shop in the market that sold Bibles. Yaqoub Shamas was my father’s uncle. He went from South East Turkey to work in Iran and then came to join the American Mission Hospital in Kuwait.

Q: Can he be considered the first evangelist?

A: You can consider him to be the first. He was not a medical doctor, but he worked in the Bible cause ministry.

Q: Was the first church in Kuwait built by the American Missionaries?

A: The pastor of the American Mission Hospital lived in Kuwait from 1926 to 1964. He supervised the building of this church, which was built by Kuwaiti builders, labourers and mason ( called Ustad in Kuwait). They used material from different places to construct the building. They used local material like sea rock, clay and gypsum. To this, they added steel bars from England and clay bricks from Basra. Interestingly, an American woman donated money for the construction of the building. You can find her name at the entrance of the church.

Q: And did they use mangrove poles for roofing?

A: Yes, they did. You can see mangrove poles in the roofing of my office. In fact, the ceiling of the church is kind of different. It is a half dome made of clay bricks.

Q: What about the church in Ahmadi?

A: The church in Ahmadi is yet another story. That story goes back to the thirties when oil was discovered in the country. Kuwait started exporting oil in the forties. In fact, the first shipment of oil was exported on the 30th of June 1946. In those days, Kuwait Oil Company was jointly owned by the American Gulf Oil Company and British Petroleum. The discovery of oil was followed by the arrival of many people who came to work in the oil sector. In those days, most of the employees of Kuwait Oil Company were American, British, Indians and Pakistanis, and a large number of these workers were Christians. According to the oil concession, Ahmadi City was operated entirely by Kuwait Oil Company, which built two churches to serve their employees. One of the churches to be built was a Catholic Church. They called it ‘Our Lady of Arabia Church’ and the other was an Anglican Church or Protestant Church called ‘St Paul’s Church’. Both were built in Ahmadi.

Q: Is there a Coptic presence in Kuwait?

A: Yes, of course. The Coptic Church took permission to worship in Kuwait in the 1960s. And, interestingly, this was the first Coptic Church to be built outside Egypt in the Middle East. The Copts started worshipping in a rented house that was located opposite the Holy Family Cathedral. Later, during construction work in the area, the Government gave them a plot to build their new church.

Q: Pastor, you said earlier that there are 264 Kuwaiti Christians. When and how did that happen?

A: Actually, it happened when the American Mission Hospital was set up in Kuwait. As I said earlier, when the American missionaries arrived in Kuwait, people like Yacoub Shamas came to Kuwait to join the hospital. Soon they settled down. Later, Yaqob Shamas was joined by other people like my father and his cousin who came here to work. These families lived and worked in Kuwait for a long time. Later, in the forties they were granted Kuwaiti passports once they started to be issued. In other words, this meant that the government officially acknowledged them as Kuwaitis. In 1959, when the government issued the citizenship law, these people were given Kuwaiti citizenship. And to answer your question, they were Christian families who became Kuwaitis.

Q: I wanted to know more about the history of your family. Since you are the first Arab pastor from the Gulf, I thought that would be interesting. Perhaps, from your story, we will get a general idea of the movement of early Christian families in Kuwait.

A: My father came to Kuwait as a young man. During the First World War, he was a boy in South East Turkey. His father was executed during the Armenian and Syriac genocide in Turkey. Orphaned, my father was taken by the Red Cross to live in a refugee camp in Lebanon, where he lived for ten years. At that time, he knew that his uncle Yaqub Shamas lived and worked in Kuwait. When he turned 18 he wrote to his uncle asking him for a job. His uncle invited him to join him. My father came to Kuwait and lived here for three months. Unable to find a suitable job , he left for Bahrain where he had two other uncles. He joined the American Mission Hospital in Bahrain and lived and worked there for twelve years. In 1940, he left Bahrain and went to Mosul in Iraq where he had other relatives. Five years later, he married my mother who is a Syrian Orthodox Christian from Iraq. In 1945, he came back to Kuwait with his wife and settled here.

Q: So it was quite a journey that spanned many countries.

A: Yes it was.

Q: Did your father work with the American Mission Hospital here?

A: My father was trained to be a nurse, and then later, he was given the job of a bill collector which he kept until 1967. The 31st of March 1967 was the last working day of the American Mission hospital in Kuwait. After its closure, the staff of the hospital was distributed between the Ministry of Health and private hospitals. The Kuwaitis were sent to the Ministry of Health.

Q: What did your father do? A: He joined the Ministry of Health and worked there until he passed away in 1977.

Q: When did you think of devoting your life to the church?

A: I was born in the American Mission Hospital. During my childhood, I used to attend Sunday school. After High School, I graduated from Kuwait University’s College of Science in Chemistry and Geology and joined the oil industry. During that time, I got married. In 1981, I attended a Christian conference where I was ‘Born’ again. I came back to Kuwait and got involved in church activities. In 1986, I felt my calling. There is a verse in the Bible which says ‘As my father sent me I send you.’ I consider this as a calling for Ministry. At that time, I was working in the Ministry of Oil. I took leave without pay, and with my family went to the theological seminary to study theology in Cairo. After I graduated from the seminary in 1989, I came back and rejoined the Ministry of Oil. But I also continued to work in the church side by side. Then, Kuwait was invaded in 1990. I stayed here with my family during the seven months of occupation and worked with the church. After liberation in 1991, I joined back work in the Ministry of Oil. Around that time I was appointed joint administrator at NECK (The National Evangelical Church – Kuwait) compound, and put in charge of finance. In 1996, I retired from my job and joined the church full time. In 1992, I was elected and ordained as a ruling elder in the Arab language congregation and became a member of the church council. In 1999, I was elected and ordained pastor of the Arab language congregation.

Q: Did you feel apprehensive when you took the decision of becoming a pastor? Weren’t you doing something that is unheard of in the Gulf?

A: When a calling comes from God, you don’t think of these things. I knew I would face challenges, but when a calling comes you have to respond. And I thank God, that my journey with faith has been marvellous. I faced many problems during my theological study because I graduated in 1971 and went back to studies in 1986 after almost 15 years of working in the oil industry. It was difficult for me emotionally and intellectually to go back to academics. I thought of stopping, but God strengthened me and with the support of my wife, I managed to finish it.

Q: You are the first Arab pastor in the Arabian Gulf. Was it difficult for you? Did your being Kuwaiti make it difficult?

A: Actually, I was surprised when my ordination was announced in the newspaper. In fact, it was on the first page of the Kuwaiti newspapers. I did not expect the Kuwaiti society to welcome this step. At the diwaniyas , which I visit regularly, many Kuwaitis came up to me and told me they were happy to hear that a Kuwaiti Christian had become a pastor. This encouraged me. Moreover, the church has good relations with the government, and the government viewed this step as a step forward for Kuwait. We thank God for the religious freedom and for the leadership in our country. I thank God for the protection during sad events that shake the society. The government goes all out to protect all places of worship regardless of whether they belong to Muslims or Christians.

Q: How well do the Kuwaiti Christians do in society?

A: Although our numbers are less, we are an integral part of the society. As Kuwaiti citizens, we enjoy all rights and on our part, we fulfil our duties. There are many Kuwaiti Christians who have reached high positions in government. Khalil Shuhaiber, a Kuwaiti Christian reached the position of Assistant Undersecretary in the Ministry of Interior. Also, a son of Yacoub Shammas was appointed ambassador. He was the first Kuwaiti ambassador to the Soviet Union. Then there are others as well.

Q: Is it right that the number of churches have not grown in the last many years although the number of worshippers have increased?

A: We have requested the government for more places of worship. And the government is looking into it. We are hoping and praying for a favourable response.

Q: Has there been any noticeable change in the number of local Christians in recent years?

A: According to the law of citizenship passed in 1959, citizenship was open to anyone naturalized regardless of their religion, but in 1981, there was an amendment that limited citizenship only to Muslims. That may have stopped any change in numbers.

By Chaitali B. Roy Special to the Arab Times

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