Magazine article The Christian Century

The World Comes to Qatar: Interfaith Conversations in an Arab Land

Magazine article The Christian Century

The World Comes to Qatar: Interfaith Conversations in an Arab Land

Article excerpt

THE NATION OF QATAR, roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island, is the world's leading producer of natural gas and has the highest per capita income of any country in the Arab world. A few decades ago it was a tribal society with an economy based largely on fishing, pearl harvesting and camel and horse breeding. In 1995 a bloodless coup in which Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa deposed his father set the stage for the modernization of the country's oil and gas industries and for stunning economic growth. Qatar's economy grew 24 percent in 2006 alone, according to the U.S. State Department, and its per capita income that year was $61,540. Qatar is on track to become the wealthiest nation (on a per capita basis) in the world.

The vast majority of Qatar's population lives in or around the capital city of Doha. Qatari citizens have benefited enormously from the economic boom, but they are a small minority in their own country, roughly 20 percent. The majority of the inhabitants are expatriates who come to Qatar to work-from other Arab nations, from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, and from the West.

Qatar, which became independent from Great Britain in 1971, has long been ruled by the Al-Thani family. The emir, selected from within that family, rules in accordance with Shari'a law and in consultation with members of his and other leading families, though some moves have been made toward having elections and a more parliamentary form of government. In 1992, following the war in Kuwait, Qatar signed a defense agreement with the United States which allowed the U.S. to build in Qatar its largest military base in the Middle East and the headquarters for CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command for the Middle East.

Sheikh Hamad, as Qatar's current emir, has introduced many changes, including a certain amount of freedom of the press and of religion. Al-Jazeera, a broadcasting company that is viewed as the freest in the Arab world, was established in 1997. Its broadcasts are often critical of other governments in the area, but not of Qatar. In March a Catholic church opened in Doha; while there were various places of Christian worship previously, this was the first building in centuries to be erected as a Christian church in the country. Significantly, it does not display the cross on any of its outer walls. Plans are being made for a Greek Orthodox church, an Anglican church, a Coptic church, and a church for Christian traditions from India, which will also include a space for nondenominational worship.

Not all Qataris are pleased with such openings to Christianity. Most of the country's citizens adhere to Islam's conservative Wahhabi movement. In the Islamic tradition, there is a hadith in which Muhammad says that Christians should not be allowed in the holy areas. Some Qatari Muslims believe that this principle should apply to the entire Arabian Peninsula, including Qatar. A vigorous debate in the local press took place over the building of the Catholic church, and worries were expressed about a possible violent protest. When Georgetown University's Qatar branch tried to import Christian Bibles for one of its theology courses, the Bibles were held up at customs for six weeks until the ministry of education was able to confirm that they were intended for educational purposes at the university.

Yet in other ways openness to the West is part of Qatar's agenda. The Qatar Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by the emir, is inviting applications for membership in the Qatar Symphony Orchestra. In February, Placido Domingo came to sing with the German orchestra of Baden-Baden.

An aura of artificiality envelops many things in Doha. The shopping mall Villaggio is built as a replica of Venice, with gondoliers waiting to take shoppers for a ride along a canal that goes past the shops toward an ice skating rink. Above the mall's entrance are murals depicting Venetian architecture. …

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