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04KUWAIT1355 2004-04-26 10:02:00 CONFIDENTIAL Embassy Kuwait
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					C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 KUWAIT 001355 



E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/26/2014

Classified By: (U) Charge d'Affaires John Moran, reason 1.4(d)

1.(C) SUMMARY: A/DCM and Poloff met April 24 with Father
Bigol, one of three resident Coptic Orthodox priests in
Kuwait, to discuss religious freedom issues. There are an
estimated 65,000 Copts in Kuwait. Cautious and discreet,
Father Bigol, who has served here for nearly two years,
stressed the importance of maintaining a cooperative
relationship with the GOK. A strong emphasis on affinity for
Egypt and Kuwait, and a low-key, non-confrontational approach
to resolving difficulties have helped the Coptic Church
navigate successfully through bureaucratic obstacles and
obtain a written GOK commitment to solve the problem of the
church's required move from its current premises. Although
the Coptic Church, like the other recognized Christian
churches in Kuwait, continues to face challenges such as
severe overcrowding, restrictions on assembly and religious
teaching, and limits on the number of clergy and staff, it is
able to operate openly as a church without interference from
government authorities. The Coptic Church's approach of
carefully respecting the boundaries of permissible activity
while actively cultivating well-placed supporters, including
a sister of the Amir, is working well. Such problems as the
Coptic Church faces appear due primarily to hostility from
some Egyptian Muslims. END SUMMARY.



2.(C) The St. Mark's Coptic Church was built in 1960 on a
small parcel of land in downtown Kuwait City. According to
senior priest Father Bigol, who, like his two colleagues,
hails from the Anba Bishoy monastery in Egypt, the Amir had
originally promised the church after its establishment that a
larger plot of land would be forthcoming. However, the Coptic
Orthodox Church has remained in its original location for the
past 44 years. An estimated 65,000 Coptic Orthodox Christians
live in Kuwait. In 2002, the GOK notified the Coptic Church
of its intention to appropriate the church's land for a road
expansion project.

3.(C) Father Bigol told us April 24 that the GOK has promised
the Coptic Church a grant of 6,500 square meters of new land
in Hawally district upon which to build a new church; the
church had requested 5,000. He said that Sheikha Fraiha
Al-Ahmed Al-Sabah, a sister of the Amir, has been
instrumental in helping the church obtain new land. Father
Bigol proudly gave us copies of several recent news articles
from the local Arabic and English language dailies (the
originals were prominently displayed near the church's main
entrance) regarding Sheikha Fraiha's efforts to assist the
church. (Note: Father Bigol explained that he and Sheikha
Fraiha, "a nice, kind woman," had "become friends," and that
she had offered her assistance in negotiating with the GOK on
behalf of the church on the land issue. End Note). Sheikha
Fraiha, accompanied by a small group of friends and
relatives, even visited the Coptic Orthodox Church last week
to offer Easter greetings on behalf of the GOK and the
Kuwaiti people.

4.(C) Father Bigol told us that the church is waiting for the
Council of Ministers (Cabinet) to formally approve the
church's relocation to Hawally, and that the Council of
Ministers was expected to discuss the issue at its April 24
meeting. He added that the church had received a written
promise from the GOK, in response to a church request, that
it would not be forced to vacate its current premises until a
new church was constructed. He said no date had yet been
fixed for the church's relocation, nor had the GOK offered
any financial assistance to construct the new church, noting
only that "God takes care of our needs."



5.(C) Warmly welcoming but discreet, cautious, and
diplomatic, Father Bigol was careful to emphasize the
positive aspects of the Coptic Church's relationship with the
GOK. While he acknowledged that the church faces
difficulties (i.e., overcrowding, limited number of resident
priests, no Coptic school for religious instruction, some
societal and bureaucratic discrimination against Coptic
Christians on an individual basis), he stressed that a
low-key, non-confrontational approach had helped the church
maintain good relations. (Note: Father Bigol asked repeatedly
for confirmation that no sensitive or incriminating
information would be disclosed in the 2004 International
Religious Freedom Report for Kuwait. End Note). On one of the
walls of the main reception room of the church, in which our
meeting took place, hung a photo of the Amir of Kuwait on one
side and a photo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the
other. A Kuwaiti flag and an Egyptian flag were displayed
side by side, along with placards expressing love for Kuwait
and Egypt.

6.(C) Father Bigol told us that a few church parishioners
have faced anti-Christian discrimination, but mainly from
Muslim Egyptians, and that such discrimination exists "in all
countries" and is not unique to Kuwait. Some municipal-level
officials, he said, have sometimes dragged their feet in
granting needed permits. However, the church's conciliatory
approach has been successful, he said, in winning over a few
oppositionists. In one case, the Coptic Church helped the
wife of a problematic municipal-level official get a job as a
physician despite opposition from within the Ministry of
Health, drawing on the influence of Egyptian medical
personnel in Kuwait. The municipal official, Father Bigol
said, was so moved that he has become a friend of the church.



7.(C) The conversion of Muslims to other religions is
forbidden in Kuwait. Known converts face harassment and
discrimination, including loss of employment, police
questioning, imposition of travel bans, and fines without due
process. Father Bigol told us that the Coptic Church has
declined to baptize Muslims seeking to convert, advising them
instead to be baptized in Europe or elsewhere. (Note: A
Maronite Catholic priest who leads the Arabic language
congregation at the Catholic Cathedral adjacent to the Coptic
Church told Poloff that the Catholic Church also routinely
declines to baptize would-be converts. Several Arab Muslim
converts, including two Kuwaitis, were baptized recently in
Lebanon, he said, and now worship freely at the Roman
Catholic Cathedral without any known harassment from GOK
officials. End Note.)

8.(C) While Catholics and Evangelicals have engaged in
modest, discreet, inter-faith dialogue with Muslims in
Kuwait, Father Bigol believes it might do more harm than good
(i.e., by accentuating and publicizing religious
differences). Instead, he is focusing on dialogue and
cooperation with the other recognized Christian churches in
Kuwait with a view towards establishing a Christian religious
council to liaise officially with, and present shared
concerns to, the GOK.

9.(C) COMMENT: Even at home in Egypt, the Coptic Orthodox
Church is a minority in a Muslim society. That experience,
and the fact that Copts are native speakers of Arabic, mean
the Coptic Church is adept at navigating Kuwaiti society.
More than any other church in this country that we know of,
the Coptic Church is effusive in expressing love for Kuwait
and its rulers. In general, the various religions here
coexist amicably although sectarian tensions do exist and a
small radical Islamist minority is opposed to the presence of
non-Muslims. That a sister of the Amir has so publicly taken
a close interest in the needs of the Coptic community
reflects Kuwait's pride in religious tolerance.

10.(C) COMMENT, CONTINUED: In some ways, the Copts in Kuwait,
because of their minority status in their home country, may
be willing to accept a lower standard of religious freedom
than their Catholic or Evangelical counterparts here. The
Evangelicals, in particular, have been vocal in expressing
concern over lack of adequate worship space and, more
recently, over compliance with the National Manpower Support
Law's "Kuwaitization" requirements.