Since the end of 2017, Christians are back by thousandsin Karakoch and Mosul in Iraq. Unfortunately, touristshave been scarce in Bethlehem in the West Bank:indeed travel cancellations 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 is divided on the celebration of « Christmas » in a secular country.
Meanwhile, there is a land of Islam that acceptsChristians: Qatar.
Let’s investigate in a disputed emirate in the heart of an expat and fervent Christian community gathered for the celebration of Christmas.
Qatar is known for its strategic investments in France, particularly in the French media *, and in sports. RealChristmas gift for the Qatari population and expatriateaficionados : PSG was in Doha these days to celebrateits title of Autumn Champion and prepare the shock of itsnext round of eight finals against Real Madrid …
Criticized for its alleged proximity – and contested by the local authorities – with the Muslim Brotherhood, thissmall emirate, nestled between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, has ben living under a severeembargo decreed by Saudi Arabia and its allies ** sincelast June 5th.
Christmas in Doha was already a way to highlight – and to greet – our expatriates: the 5,000 to 10,000 French living on site are far from returning to France for thisfamily celebration that is above 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 emir is perfectly French-speaking and has some of his children in the French Lycée » . It is quite rare for aHead of state that even President Macron congratulatedhim during his visit to Qatar on December the 7th.
A Christmas in the land of Islam
Is it the effect of the blockade lived as a deep injustice and as a real threat to the stability of the region and the integrity of an independent state for less than 50 years?This Christmas 2017 was, in the opinion of the Christians met on the spot, of a particular fervor …
Because we 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 whomhe transmitted power in 2013 and current Head of state, the very francophone – and francophile – Tamim Ben Hamad Al-Thani: Christians are free to practice theirworship, with discretion, but also with fervor, as wehave witnessed the French, Filipinos and Tamouls wemet – and questioned freely – there.
In this city-state, which shines all year round with its1,000 lights and its futuristic architecture, we thought wecould see, as in Paris, commercial operations withChristmas tree and garlands designed to attractexpatriates who remained there in the numerous malls… It is true that at Christmas time the big hotels organizesome of their biggest events of the year: the Four Seasons expects for example more than 500 expatriateson this 25th of December.
But – and we have almost lost the habit in France – it ismostly Christian believers we met in Doha. What a singularity – what a joy too – 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 a traditional Wahhabiland. But in Doha, we are also in modernist land and a certainly recent modernism – it goes back to the 90s – but much more advanced than some of its neighbors.
It is our conviction, as a committed publisher, our bet also, our hope in this holiday season: the modernizationof Islam will accelerate on the ruins and counter fires of Islamist terrorism and its ideological roots. In Qatar and throughout the Middle East.
It is the combination of these two dimensions – Wahabism and modernity – which can only be achievedpeacefully and smoothly, by consensus, in a certain Qatari way ****, that liberties will progress in this regionof the world. At this condition of consensus, extremistswill be removed from the meaning of history, a historycurrently accelerated!
This necessary fusion is at work in Qatar – we wanted to check it on the spot – as in the whole of the Gulf regionin a more or less erratic way according to the countries. But we will come back soon …
« Qatari modernity » shall we say? Women were the first one in the Gulf area to vote (in 1999) and hold electedoffice and corporate leadership positions. We alreadyknew this essential point.
The right of Christians to exercise their worship was thesecond clue. We discovered it there. Christians in the land of Islam therefore … Muslims recognize Jesus, but also Moses and Buddha, as Prophets. It thereforeseemed natural to us to understand why they recognizethe right of their faithfuls to worship freely.
Babel in Doha
Qatar does not have the monopoly of the Christian presence. According to sources, it is estimated thatthere are around 1.5 million Christians in the ArabianPeninsula. They are, for the most part, residents fromSouth Asian countries (India and the Philippines), but they are also Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Christian Arabs, and finally Western expatriates. All the Gulf countries except Saudi Arabia (!), have in their territorieschurches which are mostly newly built. The largestChristian religious center is in Doha..
Qatar does not have the monopoly of the Christian presence. According to sources, it is estimated thatthere are around 1.5 million Christians in the ArabianPeninsula. They are, for the most part, residents fromSouth Asian countries (India and the Philippines), but they are also Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian Christian Arabs, and finally Western expatriates. All the Gulf countries except Saudi Arabia (!), have in their territorieschurches which are mostly newly built. The largestChristian religious center is in Doha.
It was Father Rally Gonzaga who welcomed us and gave us a video interview [to discover Wednesday, December the 27th]. The fervor, on this Christmas night, was palpable and on all faces. Thousands of faithfulgathered in front of the nursery of the little Jesus and celebrated the midnight mass.
« Masses » should we say because there were many … This imposing Christian religious center in Doha couldbe called Babel: more than 12 languages give rise to somany masses celebrated for the residents. And evensome in languages we do not know: Tagalog (Malaysian-Polynesian Filipino dialect), Sinhala (for Sri Lankans), Konkani (one of the 22 official languages in India).
Among these masses, there were almost 200 French in the chapel to hear the celebration of Father Antonio Feghali, assisted by Father Charbel Mhanna, bothLebanese. The first one came urgently the day before to support a diocese surprised this year by the affluence of faithfuls.
Two hundred French people who, in the general opinion, have welcomed the organizationand securitystrengthened. Because to arrive on the spot, it is stillnecessary to show your credentials, under the benevolent and reassuring control 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 discover Wednesday, Decemberthe 27th], « the hope takes all its meaning here in Doha at this particular time. »
Then, there was the Indian mass for Tamouls in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary which can accommodate 3,000 souls. Indians are the mostnumerous among foreign workers in Qatar. We know that Filipinos are overwhelmingly Christian, but IndianChristians are the most numerous in this Emirate. The Church was full, the crowd didn’t decrease. Colors and smiles were in all eyes.
Here in Doha, we said to ourselves: the Universal Church is still alive.
Moreover, the collection carried out by the diocese for the next construction of a Maronite Church attests to the dynamism of the Christians there. Finally, this religiouscenter, which houses Anglican, Coptic, Protestant and Catholic churches on the same grounds, made us thinkof the Esplanade des Religions which is the pride of Bussy-Saint-Georges (France) in the suburb of Paris. Almost at the same time, the first stone of a future mosque was laid on December the 17th.
Next year in Doha
Let’s dream a little bit: if in a year, at Christmas 2018, religious communities around the world, Jews, Buddhists(there is no Hindu temple in Qatar despite a large community), Muslims and Christians, laymen and agnostics , could come together 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 faith could jointogether to build a more sustainable peace in the Middle East …
* Among other strategic investments, Qatar holdsminority interests in Airbus, the Accor group and the Lagardère group.
** Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Egypt.
*** A thought for our little Nour, because this is the first Christmas we are living away from her since she sawthe light.
**** Decisions are made here by consensus in the Majlis, some with sumptuous architecture, often afterhours of discussion between Sultans and the Emir’sfamily.
Thanks to Ganesh Baral and Rohit Sharma for the videos.