Catholic Copts in Kuwait

Fathers Yassa and Domingos Santamaria

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Integrated into the Apostolic Vicariate of North Arabia, the Coptic Catholic community in Kuwait has more than 5,000 members and interacts directly with other Christian denominations, mostly made up of immigrant workers from Asian countries such as Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, as well as Arab Christians from Lebanon (Maronite and Melkite rites), Egypt (Coptic rites), Jordan, Palestine and Syria (Syrian, Melkite or Latin rites).

These are simple people who work hard and live a life of sacrifice to support their families that they left in distant countries, where they return every two years to stay there for a month or two. Eight or ten people live in the same room and every day they save as much as they can, maintaining little social exchange. The Holy Family Cathedral, in Kuwait City, is the only place where the people of Christ spend time in a spirit of communion.

Father Yassa Ghobrial, at the head of the Coptic Catholic community in Kuwait, was this year, on May 5th, responsible for Easter celebrations according to the Julian calendar. Participating in the long rites of the Coptic Catholic liturgy takes us to the origins of the cult, to the 1st century AD. There are hours of consecutive chants, fervently performed by everyone, young and old, accompanied by the burning of incense and the sprinkling of holy water.

Ordained on June 10, 2000, Yassa Ghobrial served as a parish priest for almost a decade in Upper Egypt, initially in the parish of the Cathedral of Divine Mercy and then in the Church of the Virgin Mary. After a European break – first in Ireland and then in London – he returned to Egypt to the parish at the Church of Saint George, for a year, and the Church of Saint Teresa, for the subsequent five years. With such a “resume”, it is no wonder that the Coptic Catholic Patriarch of Alexandria, Ibrahim Isaac Sidrak, recommended him to the Vicariate of North Arabia, where Father Yassa, since August 2022, began to serve the Coptic Catholic community in Kuwait.

But there is a religious figure that is even better known in those parts: we are talking about the Indian, Domingos Santamaria, ordained a priest in Jerusalem on June 27, 1970, and who has lived in Kuwait since October 1973. The number of liturgies and sacraments celebrated until Easter 2024 says much about the ministry of this priest of Portuguese-origin born in Goa: more than eighteen thousand masses, eight thousand one hundred and forty baptisms and seven hundred and forty-eight marriages. Currently head of the Holy Family Cathedral, Santamaria was the first priest to be incardinated in the Latin Vicariate, and to this day, in the company of ten other priests, he carries out his pastoral service in the largest Catholic church in the country under the leadership of the Apostolic Vicar of Northern Arabia, Dom Aldo Berardi, O.S.T.

“At the age of 25, I was appointed pastor of the Parish of the Holy Family in Crater (Aden, Yemen) where I remained until I was incardinated here in Kuwait,” said the Catholic priest in a recent interview with the Vatican news agency. This Goan, a charismatic figure throughout the Vicariate of North Arabia, is known as ‘Padre Pio of Kuwait’, as he spends a lot of time in the confessional. They also affectionately call him ‘Don Bosco’, because when he takes his daily walks, countless children and young people always surround him.

“So far I have baptized 8,140 children and I hope to baptize many more. It is an immeasurable joy to be able to give them Jesus,” says Santamaria. People “listen to me because I have a very clear tone and I speak loudly”. Every day, this priest invites his parishioners to repeat ‘Jesus-Maria-Joseph’ as many times as possible. That’s why they also call him the ‘Jesus-Mary-Joseph priest’. Because he sincerely loves what he does, Domingos Santamaria pays attention to his health, which he maintains through a simple and economical diet, “no sweets, no chocolate, no wine, no coffee”.

Having remained in his post during the invasion of Kuwait by the Iraqi army, the Goan priest received his first recognition from the Vatican during the pontificate of Saint John Paul II, and, on November 30, 2005, Pope Benedict XVI granted to him the Cross of Honor ‘Pro Ecclesia Et Pontifice’. This award, created in 1888 to mark the Golden Jubilee of Pope Leo XIII, is given in recognition of service to the Church and the Papacy.

The Coptic Catholic Church is a “sui iuris” Catholic Church, of the Alexandrian Rite, with the title of Patriarch and in communion with the Church of Rome. It is in Egypt – with 115 million inhabitants – that we find its greatest expression: 300 thousand believers spread across nine dioceses. A drop of water compared to the 13 million Orthodox Copts, but equal in number to the Protestants Copts, who also count as 300 thousand faithful. In the Catholic universe of Egypt, after the Copts, the most numerous are the Latin Rite Catholics, which include groups of Sudanese refugees. In Maadi, there is a Coptic Catholic seminary with 23 seminarians and many Catholic schools.