by Dr. Edward A. Lynch
Maronite Catholics around the world know of the desperate and often deteriorating conditions for Christians in the Middle East. Targeted by radical Islamic terrorists, and victims of onerous discrimination, Christians have much to endure in the region that gave birth to Christianity.
However, on a recent fact-finding trip to the Gulf Region, I found there is some good news for Christians from the region, and good news specifically for Maronites. The small nation of Qatar, unlike most of its neighbors, permits Christians to worship, and recognizes several different Christian churches in the overwhelmingly Muslim nation. I visited the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in November, as part of a visit sponsored by the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR). It is located in a Christian enclave outside the capital city of Doha, along with churches for Greek Orthodox, Anglicans, Evangelicals, and mainstream Protestants.
Christians in Qatar affirmed that church attendance is unrestrained, and noted that the Qatari-Christian community will soon be expanded with the opening of a Maronite church. This will be the first Maronite church to operate freely in the Gulf region. Maronite Patriarch Bechara Boutros al-Rahi laid the foundation stone for the new church in April 2018.
To be sure, the 750,000 or so Christians in Qatar have to live with legal restrictions. One
religious representative said that he does not wear a cross outside the enclave, except in an official capacity. Proselytizing among Muslims is strictly forbidden, and Christian churches hold weekly services on Friday, with an evening Mass on Sunday, in order to align with the Muslim holy day. The enclave is several miles outside of Doha, with bus service, and is surrounded by highfences.
Still, the legal status of Qatari Christians is far better than that of Christians in Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, orthe United Arab Emirates (UAE). (Nearby Oman, like Qatar, permits private Christian worship.) Qatari churches are permitted to run private Christian schools, Christian marriage is recognized by the government, and there is no religious designation on government-issued ID cards. Christian churches in Qatar serve the country's large ex-pat community, with most of the faithful coming from India, the Philippines and, increasingly, Syria and Lebanon. (Thus, the successful effort to gain recognition of a Maronite church.)
The situation for Christians in Qatar may very well improve in the short term. Qatar is currently in a prolonged dispute with its neighbors. Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed an economic and diplomatic boycott of the country in 2017, in response to Qatar'ssponsorship of Al-Jazeera. The crisis has compelled the Qatari government to open the country to foreign investment, and to redouble its efforts to attract tourists. While dealing with the boycott, Qatar is also making preparations to host the 2022 World Cup football tournament.
All of this means that Qatar needs friends. Certainly, the country cannot afford to make new enemies, nor create negative press coverage. Moreover, travelrestrictions imposed by its neighbors mean a greater need for immigrant labor from elsewhere,including Lebanon. Thus, the world's Maronite communitycan find good reason for hope with the opening of a sister church in Qatar.
Dr. Lynch is a political scientist from Hollins University, and a member of St. Elias Church in Roanoke, Virginia.