Christmas in Doha: report by Michel Taube in Qatar in the largest Christian religious center in the Gulf area
Sincethe end of 2017, Christians are back bythousandsin Karakoch and Mosul in Iraq. Unfortunately, touristshave been scarce in Bethlehem in the West Bank:indeedtravelcancellations have increased as a result of the unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by the United States and Guatemala. In Paris, public opinion isdivided on the celebration of « Christmas » in a secular country. Meanwhile, thereis a land of Islam thatacceptsChristians:Qatar.
Let’sinvestigate in a disputedemirate in the heart of an expat and fervent Christian communitygatheredfor the celebration of Christmas.
Qatar isknown for itsstrategicinvestments in France, particularly in the French media *, and in sports. RealChristmas gift for the Qatari population and expatriateaficionados :PSG was in Doha thesedays to celebrateitstitle of Autumn Champion and prepare the shock of itsnext round of eight finals against Real Madrid …
Criticized for itsallegedproximity – and contested by the local authorities – with the MuslimBrotherhood, thissmallemirate, nestledbetween the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, has ben livingunder a severeembargo decreed by Saudi Arabia and its allies ** sincelast June 5th.
Christmas in Doha wasalready a way to highlight – and to greet – ourexpatriates:the 5,000 to 10,000 French living on site are far fromreturning to France for thisfamilycelebrationthatisabove all Christmas *** . As Olivier Jouis, president of Français du Monde(ADFE), the leading French association of foreigners in Doha, tells us, « the Qataris have a certain French « heredity»:the emirisperfectly French-speakingand has some of hischildren in the French Lycée » . It isquite rare for aHead of state thatevenPresidentMacron congratulatedhimduringhisvisit to Qatar on December the 7th.
A Christmas in the land of Islam
Is it the effect of the blockadelived as a deep injustice and as a real threat to the stability of the region and the integrity of an independent state for lessthan 50 years?This Christmas 2017 was, in the opinion of the Christians met on the spot, of a particularfervor …
Becausewe know less about this reality in Qatar, wanted by the father of modern Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa An Thani, and renewed by his son to whomhetransmitted power in 2013 and currentHead of state, the very francophone – and francophile – Tamim Ben Hamad Al-Thani:Christians are free to practice theirworship, withdiscretion, but alsowithfervor, as wehave witnessed the French, Filipinos and Tamouls wemet – and questionedfreely – there.
In this city-state,whichshines all year round withits1,000 lights and itsfuturisticarchitecture, wethoughtwecouldsee, as in Paris, commercial operationswithChristmas tree and garlandsdesigned to attractexpatriateswhoremainedthere in the numerousmalls… It istruethat at Christmas time the big hotelsorganizesomeof theirbiggestevents of the year: the Four Seasons expects for examplemore than 500 expatriateson this 25th of December.
But – and we have almostlost the habit in France – itismostly Christian believerswe met in Doha. What a singularity – what a joytoo – to discover a plural and fervent Christian community in the heart of the Middle East and in the land of Islam.
As we know, in Doha we are in atraditionalWahhabiland. But in Doha, we are also in modernistland and a certainlyrecentmodernism –itgoes back to the 90s – but much more advancedthansome of itsneighbors.
It isour conviction, as a committedpublisher, ourbet also, ourhope in thisholidayseason: the modernizationof Islam willaccelerate on the ruins and counterfiresof Islamistterrorism and itsideologicalroots. In Qatar and throughout the Middle East.
It is the combination of thesetwo dimensions – Wahabism and modernity – which can onlybeachievedpeacefully and smoothly, by consensus, in a certain Qatariway ****, thatlibertieswillprogressin thisregionof the world. At this condition of consensus, extremistswillberemovedfrom the meaning of history, a historycurrentlyaccelerated!
This necessary fusion is at work in Qatar – wewanted to check it on the spot – as in the whole of the Gulf regionin a more or lesserraticwayaccordingto the countries. But wewillcome backsoon …
« Qatari modernity »shallwesay?Womenwere the first one in the Gulf area to vote (in 1999) and holdelectedoffice and corporate leadership positions. Wealreadyknewthisessential point.
The right of Christians to exercisetheirworshipwas thesecond clue. Wediscovereditthere. Christians in the land of Islam therefore … MuslimsrecognizeJesus, but also Moses and Buddha, as Prophets. It thereforeseemednaturalto us to understandwhytheyrecognizethe right of theirfaithfuls to worshipfreely.
Babel in Doha
Qatar does not have the monopoly of the Christian presence. Accordingto sources, itisestimatedthatthere are around1.5 million Christians in the ArabianPeninsula. Theyare, for the most part, residentsfromSouth Asian countries (India and the Philippines), but they are alsoLebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Christian Arabs, and finally Western expatriates. All the Gulf countries exceptSaudi Arabia (!), have in theirterritorieschurcheswhich aremostlynewlybuilt. The largestChristian religious center is in Doha..
Qatar does not have the monopoly of the Christian presence. Accordingto sources, itisestimatedthatthere are around1.5 million Christians in the ArabianPeninsula. Theyare, for the most part, residentsfromSouth Asian countries (India and the Philippines), but they are alsoLebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Christian Arabs, and finally Western expatriates. All the Gulf countries exceptSaudi Arabia (!), have in theirterritorieschurcheswhich aremostlynewlybuilt. The largestChristian religious center is in Doha.
It wasFatherRally Gonzaga whowelcomed us and gave us a video interview [to discoverWednesday, Decemberthe 27th]. The fervor, on this Christmas night, was palpable and on all faces. Thousands of faithfulgathered in front of the nursery of the littleJesus and celebrated the midnight mass.
« Masses »shouldwesaybecausethereweremany … This imposing Christian religious center in Doha couldbecalledBabel:more than 12 languages giverise to somany masses celebrated for the residents. And evensomein languages we do not know: Tagalog (Malaysian-PolynesianFilipino dialect), Sinhala (for Sri Lankans), Konkani (one of the 22 official languages in India).
Amongthese masses, therewerealmost 200 French in the chapel to hear the celebration of Father Antonio Feghali, assisted by Father Charbel Mhanna, bothLebanese. The first onecame urgently the daybefore to support a diocesesurprisedthisyearby the affluence of faithfuls.
Twohundred French people who, in the general opinion, have welcomed the organizationand securitystrengthened. Because to arrive on the spot, itisstillnecessary to show yourcredentials, underthe benevolent and reassuringcontrol of the local authoritiesand the Captain and Sultan Eid.
As Typhaine says, in the video interview she gave us at the end of the mass [to discoverWednesday, Decemberthe 27th], « the hopetakesall itsmeaninghere in Doha at thisparticular time. »
Then,therewas the Indianmass for Tamouls in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosarywhich can accommodate 3,000 souls. Indians are the mostnumerousamongforeignworkers in Qatar. We know thatFilipinosare overwhelmingly Christian, but IndianChristians are the mostnumerous in thisEmirate. The Church was full, the crowddidn’tdecrease. Colors and smileswere in all eyes.
Here in Doha, wesaid to ourselves:the Universal Church isstill alive.
Moreover, the collection carried out by the diocese for the next construction of a Maronite Church attests to the dynamism of the Christiansthere. Finally,thisreligiouscenter, whichhouses Anglican, Coptic, Protestant and Catholicchurches on the same grounds, made us thinkof the Esplanade des Religions whichis the prideof Bussy-Saint-Georges (France) in the suburb of Paris. Almost at the same time, the first stone of a future mosquewas laid on Decemberthe 17th.
Next year in Doha
Let’sdream a littlebit: if in a year, at Christmas 2018, religiouscommunitiesaround the world, Jews, Buddhists(thereis no Hindu temple in Qatar despite a large community), Muslims and Christians, laymen and agnostics , could cometogether to bring back to life in Doha the famous Christmas concert 2014, one of the best cultural memories of his life in Qatar according to Marie, a French expatriate? Music and faithcouldjointogetherto build a more sustainablepeace in the Middle East …
* Amongotherstrategicinvestments, Qatar holdsminorityinterestsin Airbus, the Accor group and the Lagardère group.
** Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt.
*** A thought for ourlittle Nour,becausethisis the first Christmas we are living awayfromhersinceshesawthe light.
**** Decisions are made here by consensus in the Majlis, somewithsumptuous architecture, oftenafterhours of discussion between Sultans and the Emir’sfamily.
Thanks to Ganesh Baral and Rohit Sharma for the videos.