In Kuwait City, Kuwait, the outdoor souk or market offers a little of everything, from cosmetics to electronics to sandals.  Hanging prominently is a prayer rug picturing the Nativity.  The Christ Child smiles down on Kuwaiti traders as the Muslim call to prayer blares in the background.

Americans sometimes forget that other countries restrict religious worship.  In Saudi Arabia, for instance, evangelism earns a foreigner jail time; apostasy results in death for a Christian convert.  Last year, 14 Ethiopian and Indian Christians were imprisoned and then expelled from that country for privately worshiping in their homes.

A welcome exception to such Muslim intolerance is Kuwait.  Barely a block from my hotel on a major street sit a Catholic church and a Coptic church.  Another long block away is an evangelical church, the meeting point for several independent congregations.

Christian churches have been in the Gulf since the fifth century A.D.  During Ottoman times, the British, Dutch, and Portuguese plied the trade routes and practiced their faiths.  In 1909, American Dr. Arthur Bennett took up residence in Kuwait, beginning a medical practice that led to construction of a hospital and a church.  Although the American Mission in Kuwait no longer exists, the Christian presence is bigger today, swelled by some 1.4 million foreign workers (there are just 800,000 native Kuwaitis).

There is a “very big Christian community” here, says Msgr.  Francis Micallef, a Carmelite bishop, who presides over the Catholic church.  Estimates of the number of practicing Christians run upward of a quarter-million.  Most are Asians, Filipinos, and Indians, along with some Lebanese.  “Before the [Gulf] war, there was a large community of Palestinians and Jordanians,” he adds, but “because of what happened, they had to leave and have not yet come back.”

Micallef figures there are between 60,000 and 80,000 Catholics in Kuwait.  The first Carmelite arrived in 1947, to minister to foreign workers of the Kuwait Oil Company.  The present church, the Holy Family Cathedral in the Desert, a large compound combining offices and worship space, was constructed in 1961.  During Mass, the block surrounding the church is alive, with cars circling and parishioners streaming through the grounds.  “We are free to have all our activities within the church and the church compound,” says Micallef.  And there is no mistaking the church: Three large crosses are embedded in the building, visible to all who drive or walk by.

There are even three private schools, run by nuns and priests, but “not church schools as such.”  Micallef is from Malta; his eight fellow priests include Filipinos, Lebanese, and Indians.

The adjoining St. Mark Coptic Church is smaller but still busy.  The sanctuary holds up to 1,000, forcing Theophane Anba Bishoy and two other priests to run multiple services to meet the needs of an estimated 60,000 Copts.

Offices and living quarters are upstairs.  “It’s a small space, so we try to use it as effectively as we can,” Bishoy explains.  His church’s activities extend beyond church grounds: During a recent festival, 10,000 to 12,000 people attended outside events.

Nearby sits the National Evangelical Church, the heir to the American Mission chapel.  The sprawling complex contains several brick and stucco buildings, with a parking lot across the street.  It is the most diverse religious community, made up of 15 different ethnic groups ranging from English to Nepalese to Korean to Arabian.  The church operates as an “umbrella to every congregation,” explains the Rev. Rafik Farouk, an Egyptian associate pastor.  There is even an English-language Anglican minister.  The Bible Society in the Gulf runs a bookstore within the compound.  Mixed in with the Bibles, study guides, and devotional tapes are key chains, pens, mugs, baseball caps, and Left Behind videos.

Kuwait remains a Muslim country, of course.  Some blocks have two mosques on them and the Grand Mosque alone covers a square block.  Some concerns are universal: A poster in the Christian bookstore warns members to be alert for terrorism and to “maintain a low profile as much as possible.”  And Kuwaiti cleric Sulaiman Abu Ghaith turned up as a spokesman for Osama bin Laden.

Ghaith’s activities, however were so shocking precisely because his case is extreme.  Moreover, as in the United States, much of the dominant worship is formalistic, not social.  Business trumps devotion: Dealmaking continues at the souk while the call to prayer wafts across the city.

Four women swathed in black burqas walk by, and a Kuwaiti companion comments acerbically on the “group of batmans.”  It is not unusual to see women in this most conservative dress shopping at a cosmetics stall in the market or a fashionable clothing store in the mall.  The dress often reflects cultural, not religious, values.

Hardcore Islamic influence in Parliament—higher education has just been segregated by sex—concerns liberal Kuwaitis as well as Christians, but most of the former with whom I talked attributed it more to the government’s weakness than extremists’ influence.  So far, Christians have not been targeted, as they have in other Muslim countries.  “We have very good relations with the authorities,” says Micallef.  “We feel that we are respected and welcomed.”  Bishoy confirms that judgment: We have “no problem” with the government.  Only three or four of the seven churches have official permission to operate, “but there is no problem for the others,” he says.

Indeed, while the Coptic church might have to relocate because of a new road project, the government has promised “to find a solution.”  Bishoy’s office sports photos of the emir and other Kuwaiti officials; on Farouk’s wall hangs a photo of an ecumenical delegation meeting with a cabinet minister.

As members of a minority, Christian leaders work together.  “We have an ecumenical spirit, and we meet regularly,” Micallef explains.  “We try to be supportive [of] one another.”  Farouk observes that his church “works with every congregation in Kuwait, and not just Kuwait only, but in the entire Gulf.”

“Everything is free here,” he says.  At the church, you “see lots of people over here, many nationalities, many ethnic groups.”

There is one significant limit, however.  The churches minister to Christian believers; they do not proselytize.

“No, no, we don’t even think of doing that,” says Micallef.  “We respect Muslim [sensitivities], and we don’t want to give the sense of being missionaries.”  Lest there be any misunderstanding, Micallef adds: “We are here to cater to the spiritual needs of Christians here.  If there were no Christians here, we wouldn’t be here.”

Bishoy echoes those sentiments.  “We prefer not to go out to Muslims, to make problems for us.”  It is enough, he says, “just to try to serve our own people.”

For a church that was built on Christ’s admonition to make disciples of all the nations and which grew through evangelism, this is no small concession.

The restriction on spreading the Gospel seems to bother the National Evangelical Church the most.  We are to minister to “Christian people only,” says Farouk.  “But any man can come here to ask, and we will respond.”  And many Kuwaitis have come to ask questions, he adds.

The church’s sentiments are obvious from the back of its welcome sign, seen only by those leaving the compound: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).

It is an irritating restriction.  But it is rare to find a Muslim country where Christians are not routinely discriminated against, oppressed, or even killed.  Kuwait is an oasis of freedom compared to some of her neighbors.