Hamza Olayan, in his new book, ‘Christians in Kuwait’, seeks to provide a comprehensive account of Christianity in Kuwait, recounting the place Christians hold in Kuwait’s history and their contribution to nation building.
Starting with Failaka as the first foothold for Christianity, Olayan traces Christian history through the Arabian Mission and its development, the Western European existence in Kuwait, the establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and discussing Kuwait, Arab and Eastern Christians before delving into the parliamentary questions and naturalisation, and highlighting prominent Christian figures who held leading positions. The book also details the individual histories of the recognised churches in Kuwait today as well as Christian cemeteries.
Olayan, born in Lebanon in 1950, is currently the Director of the Center for Information and Studies at Al Qabas Newspaper since 1975 and Editorial Secretary, researcher and expert in press information centres. He has served as head of information departments at several press institutions, has authored a number of books and made several contributions to encyclopaedias and journalism. In this interview, he provides a glimpse into his research and speaks of Kuwait’s culture of tolerance.
Arab Times: Why did you decide to write this book?
Hamza Olyan: I read about Christians in Kuwait from newspapers and other references, made friends with Christians and met with Christian clerics in Kuwait churches. I had not come across a book that collects all of the information in relation of the history of Christians and everything related to them in Kuwait so I decided to undertake the task for reference and as a comprehensive work.
AT: How did you go about gathering your information?
HO: I read many references and books in Arabic and English that formed substantial sources for the research in addition to studies and university publications, as well as articles from local and Arab newspaper publications. I went directly to churches and held meetings and interviews with their officials that lasted for months. I continued my mission with a comprehensive survey on Christian cemeteries regarding their locations, divisions, where they were and how they came to be.
AT: In your introduction you stated that the freedom of belief is guaranteed in the Kuwaiti constitution. Can you tell us more about this?
HO: Through my visits and meetings with many priests, clergymen, pastors, I was assured that they practiced their rituals and worshipped freely, without any hindrances or obstacles. One of them even told me that Kuwaiti policemen never entered the church and worshippers entered and exited premises without any restrictions.
AT: What was the most interesting discovery you made of the historical aspect of Christianity in Kuwait?
HO: The existence of historical and modern tombs and cemeteries that are still preserved and open to all the Christian communities was the most interesting discover for me. What also got my attention was the presence of over 200-300 Kuwaiti citizens and their families, and this indicates the tolerance of this society.
AT: You made a statement in your introduction that ‘Christians belong to the Arab land in terms of culture, language, history and co-existence, and are integral part of it’. Do you think this common fact is believed and accepted by many today or has it been distorted?
HO: There is a distortion but it is due to ignorance and a lack of knowledge for the large part. If there is a small group that believes otherwise and contends this, when a confrontation arises, it becomes obvious that the majority of the Kuwaiti people who live alongside Christians, consider them partners and part of the history of this land and region as a whole. This is true especially if they have relations and visits linking them to Arab countries where there is a large presence of Christians, and churches and monasteries such as Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.
AT: Can you tell us what you have learnt about the evidence of Christian civilisations in Failaka Island?
HO: Over the ages, Failaka Island has been a religious center for the Gulf region and there are many historic events that highlight the role Failaka played and its embracing of many cultures. The first lesson is that this land was mixed with oriental civilizations that had an impact on it, it is an indication of the importance of the island. We shouldn’t forget that the Arabian peninsula was not the only place in which the Christian religion prevailed, but it also has the legacy of a Jewish civilization before the advent of Christianity there.
AT: Your book details the historic stages and development of the Arabian Mission in Kuwait. In what ways did the Arabian Mission shape the existence of Christianity in Kuwait? Can you tell us about the lesser known impact on education that the church had?
HO: The Arabian Mission in Kuwait formed a great part of the Christian existence in the country and played a huge role in the arrival of many Christians. They shaped an introduction to the real Christian existence in Kuwait. It provided humanitarian services such as the hospital and contributed to education and enjoyed close ties with the local community as well as a very close relationship with the political leadership in Kuwait.
AT: Do Christians today enjoy the same social relations that the early church did with the Kuwaiti leadership and community?
HO: Yes, I believe they still do. They have the widest network of the social relations and are highly respected by the political leadership.
AT: How did the European presence impact the existence of Christianity in Kuwait?
HO: The Western European presence in Kuwait was an important part of the settled Christian presence and formed a prelude to it. They contributed in the strengthening and security of the population as well as had a direct impact on political decisions and other aspects of life.
AT: What are your favourites of the many historical anecdotes and stories mentioned in your book?
HO: When you walk around in Christian tombs and cemeteries and see the names and nationalities, you feel proud that this land has a great deal of tolerance and a vast legacy of dealing with Christians in general.
AT: What makes Kuwait’s relationship with the Vatican so distinctive?
HO: The diplomatic relationship between Kuwait and the Vatican dates back to 1968 and it was the first of its kind between a Gulf State and the headquarters of the Holy See. There has been a continuation of that same friendly relationship and fruitful cooperation through the years with mutual visits between the two, and high level meetings such as those held in the 50s between the leaders of Kuwait and the Pope of the Vatican.
AT: What significance would you credit to oil in determining the Christian presence in Kuwait today?
HO: All through the 1930s, Christian existence in Kuwait, whether Arab or western, had not witnessed any significant changes. But the emergence of oil contributed immensely to the influx of Arab and foreign Christians to Kuwait. The rapid economic development in Kuwait attracted Christians working in different sectors apart from oil. After independence, many countries recognized Kuwait and established Embassies because of the presence of their communities here.
AT: Who are the Kuwaiti Christians? Do they face any discrimination within Kuwaiti society?
HO: Most of the Kuwaiti Christians and those who have citizenship came from Iraq, Iran, Palestine and Lebanon, and there is no discrimination between them and Kuwaiti Muslim citizens. They have the same rights and the same duties.
AT: In your book, you mention prominent Christian figures who held important positions. Can you highlight a few of them for our readers?
HO: Christian existence in Kuwait has left a remarkable impression on many aspects of life in and development of Kuwait. There are many prominent Christian figures, citizens as well as residents, who have held leading positions in both private and public bodies. Some of those positions were sensitive in nature, and this reflects the political leadership’s total trust in their capabilities and efficiency throughout the decades whether in security or diplomatic positions. There are a few of those prominent Christian figures that are widely known but the majority of them prefer to keep a low profile despite their great achievements.
Some of the prominent Christians include Ibrahim Dabdoub, the most important banker in Kuwait who contributed 53 years of service at the National Bank of Kuwait, having helmed it for three decades, Saeed Yaq’ub Ibrahim Shamas, the first Kuwaiti Consul in 1962, Jaber Essa Shuhaibar, who organized the Amiri guard and contributed to the building of the security forces, Major General Khalil Yusuf Shuhaibar who was the founder of the modern police force, and Jamila Fadhel Khouri who was a nurse in charge of 8000 employees, to name a few.
AT: Why are there so few recognised churches in Kuwait while the number of worshippers and churches are large? What are the other big challenges to churches in Kuwait today?
HO: There are about 8 different Christian churches and denominations spread throughout the State of Kuwait. The building of new churches faces obstacles and objections, this is the biggest challenge they face today.
AT: Do you think recognised churches will be provided land to build new churches to cope with the large number of worshippers?
HO: Yes, there are attempts being made for this purpose and those in charge are making every effort to provide more places of worship.
AT: In the recent past, there have been calls for a ban on churches by MPs. What does that incident and the response to it signify about Kuwaiti society and the church today? In your opinion, how will it be regarded ten years from now?
HO: There were extremist Islamic groups that rejected the existence of churches but they don’t make the decision, they are on the fringe, pressure groups as found in most countries. In contrast, there are voices and civic groups demanding that Christians be given land to build a new churches. In any case, Kuwait remains one of the best countries in the Gulf.
AT: Looking to the future, do you believe that Kuwait will continue to be tolerant society? Why or why not?
HO: Tolerance is not a ministerial decision or resolution, it is an inheritance of the heritage, culture and knowledge of a society. This virtue of coexistence has entered into the fabric of Kuwaiti society due to its openness with the other. While extremist views may intensify at certain moments in the future, it will not reach the extent of abandonment of the people’s tolerant leanings.
By Cinatra Fernandes
Arab Times Staff