KUWAIT CITY – Is it religiously acceptable for Muslims to wish their Christian colleagues or acquaintances a Merry Christmas? In Kuwait, it depends on who you ask.
Days before the holiday that is not officially celebrated in this small oil-rich state, fundamentalists like Mohammed al-Kandari began urging fellow Muslims not to extend the greeting to Christians they know.
Al-Kandari, who heads the Society of Sharia, or Islamic law, told Al-Watan daily the celebration contradicted with Islam because Christians believe Jesus was the son of God.
The decline in tolerance of other faiths comes as political Islam is sharply increasing its presence in mainstream politics across the region.
A year ago, the militant Islamist group Hamas swept Palestinian elections; Jordan appointed an Islamist to the Cabinet in November; and Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood formed the largest opposition bloc in parliament since elections in 2005.
There are few hundred Kuwaiti Christians among the country's 1 million citizens. However, many of the 2 million foreign workers who live here are Christian.
Kuwait University political science teacher Ahmed al-Baghdadi said posters expressing sentiments similar to Al-Kandari's appeared around campus for several days. "It is dangerous because it means that the extremist movement feels stronger than before ...maybe in the future they will call for closing down (non-Muslim) places of worship." Kuwait permits several churches to operate.
Senior Shiite scholar Mohammed Baqer al-Mohri issued a statement saying Muslims can "congratulate their brethren the Christians" on Christmas and "show joy" on the occasion.
"Let all Christians in the world know that all Muslims love Jesus ... and his mother Mary," just like the holy Quran tells us to, al-Mohri said.
The government is fighting extremism with a campaign to spread "moderation" especially among young men, many of whom have adopted fundamentalist Islam and taken up arms in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.
On Christmas Eve, Al-Watan columnist Nabil al-Fadhl urged officials leading the campaign to make a concrete gesture to Christians.
"It is a silly joke to try to preach moderation .... if you do nothing about those who fight Christmas and describe as infidel those who wish Christians a Merry Christmas," he wrote.
Christians freedom to worship in the Persian Gulf is generally more constrained than elsewhere in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is the least tolerant of other faiths. It bans non-Islamic holidays.