Father Emmanuel and the Christians of Kuwait

Father Emmanuel Benjamin Jacob Gharib,
Father Emmanuel Benjamin Jacob Gharib, the first native priest of the Gulf, stands in the aisle of the National Evangelical Church in Kuwait City on February 20, 2018 [Yasser al-Zayyat/AFP]

Dressed in a traditional white Gulf headdress and with two red crosses embroidered on his black clerical robe, Kuwait’s first homegrown priest cuts a unique figure in the predominantly Muslim country.

In an interview with the AFP news agency in advance of the 20th anniversary of his ordination, he stressed the level of acceptance he has felt from fellow Muslim Kuwaitis.

But as an engineering graduate, he was not always destined for the priesthood. This is his story:

Assyrian background

  • Assyrian parents: Born in the Qibla district of Kuwait City, Gharib was raised in a devout Christian family.

  • Like many Christian Kuwaitis, his roots lie elsewhere in the Middle East.The priest’s father was born to an Assyrian family in southeast Turkey but was forced to flee when the Ottoman Empire targeted the minority Christian groups during WWI.

  • The Red Cross took his father to Iraq, where he would eventually wed Gharib’s mother – a fellow Assyrian – in the northern city of Mosul in 1945.

  • With the former Ottoman cities reeling from the upheaval of World War I, the couple decided to build their future in Kuwait.

  • Engineering graduate: He graduated from engineering school with a degree in geology in 1971 and soon found a job at the Kuwaiti oil ministry.

  • They raised four girls and three boys – the eldest Emmanuel – in a religious environment, taking them to Sunday School each week. They always felt close to their Muslim neighbours.

  • Turning point: Ten years into his career, Emmanuel Gharib and his wife took part in a religious conference in Kuwait.

  • “That was the turning point,” he said. “That was where the Lord changed my life … where I was born again and began my journey with Jesus Christ.”

  • Priesthood: He quit his job and embarked in 1989 on a theology degree at the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo.

  • He was ordained as a priest in 1999 and subsequently elected to head the National Evangelical Church of Kuwait, becoming the first and only Gulf Arab priest.

  • “An Egyptian or Lebanese priest performs the same liturgy but a Kuwaiti priest can communicate the teachings of the Bible in the Kuwaiti dialect,” said Abu Nader, a 63-year-old parishioner.

  • For 54-year-old Eyad Noman: “Our relationship with him is very strong… He is one of us.”

  • Father Emmanuel also serves as vice president of the Islamic-Christian Relations Council in Kuwait, which he cofounded in 2009.

Kuwait’s Christians

  • Arrival: Over the past century, Christians have immigrated from Turkey, Iraq and Palestine during periods of upheaval, gaining citizenship under a 1959 Nationality Law.

  • But the presence of Christians in Kuwait dates back even further, to the arrival of American Evangelical missionaries and the founding of the American Mission Hospital in the early 1900s, he said.

  • Current count: The local Christian population is dwarfed by 900,000 expatriate workers of various Christian denominations and nationalities – from Lebanese to Filipinos.

  • At the last count, according to Father Emmanuel, Kuwait has 264 native Christians from eight extended families, out of a total native population of 1.35 million.

  • Christians of different denominations are “free to practise” in several churches and Kuwait City municipality has provided land to bury their dead, he said.

  • Father Emmanuel’s own landmark next year will coincide with the 85th anniversary of the Evangelical Church in Kuwait.

  • “Everyone welcomes me wherever I go,” said Father Emmanuel.

Source: AFP