In the Catholic parish, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, 33 masses are celebrated on Saturday. Father Charbel Mhanna, a Lebanese priest with an imposing physique, officiates over these masses in a refined Italian acquired during his studies in Italy. For two years, father Mhanna has been on mission in this small but rich peninsula which, thanks to the massive immigration of foreign workers, today counts approximately 300,000 Christians, a sixth of the total population.
However, the restrictions for those who do not practice Islam are extensive, starting from the ban on proselytizing, a criminal offense in Qatar, punishable by a maximum penalty of one year in prison. “I primarily deal with the community of European expats and Arabs. In Qatar our work does not consist in evangelization but we follow Christians who want to profess their faith within the country,” says father Mhanna.
Qatari law, based on the teachings of sharia, the Islamic law, only recognizes the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – and conversion from Islam to another faith is legally equated with apostasy, even if no death sentence has ever been imposed in the nation’s history. Furthermore, the government of Doha prohibits the dissemination of non-Muslim religious material and prevents the display of any symbol in non-Muslim places of worship.
“There are no crosses and no steeples here in Mesaymir, they are prohibited and even the signs used to indicate the presence of the church raised criticisms. Now they have been replaced and they use a more generic term: religious complex,” says father Mhanna. “The State of Qatar gave us this patch of land in the desert to build our churches and here we have complete freedom, beyond that we respect the rules.”
The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary is a point of reference especially for the vast community of migrants from Asia which make up one of the country’s poorest demographics. The freedom of religion in Qatar is therefore a difficult question. The government of Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani created the Doha International Centre for Interfaith Dialogue (DICID), an institution that aims to favor dialogue between other religions. “We Qataris are mostly Sunni Muslims, only 10 percent are Shiite,” explains Ibrahim Saleh al-Naimi, DICID director. “Sharia is the foundation of our legal system but, given the massive immigration which accounts for nearly 90% of the population, our center organizes a round table capable of bringing together all of the representatives of the recognized religions in the country.”
As pointed out by the International Religious Freedom Report by the American State Department, the country’s religious groups lack a legal procedure to register themselves in the country or to establish a place of worship. Therefore, despite the Doha government’s creation of the interfaith center, religious ceremonies are only guaranteed by Qatari law if they conform to the “maintenance of public order and of morality.” This means that no visible signs indicating the presence of Christian churches are allowed, as well as places of worship of other non-Muslim faiths, no proselytizing, and no public visibility outside the already existent circle of believers. These believers are overseen by the ten priests of Our Lady of the Rosary, which are all as available and committed as father Mhanna, who does not hesitate to walk the crowded market of Souq Waqif wearing his clerical collar. “As long as they need me, I will stay here,” Mhanna tells us, leaving with a smile, “Even if my hope is to, one day, be able to display crosses outside of the church in Mesaymir.”
[This article was translated from the original Italian]