Qatar is open to the world this week, so why are its churches hidden from view?

A Catholic church inside the Mesaymeer complex, which houses all officially registered Christian churches in Qatar.(Photo: Open Doors International)

While football supporters around the world are gathering in Qatar for the FIFA 2022 World Cup, a spokesperson for the charity Open Doors has questioned why Qatar's officially registered Christian churches are hidden away in a single compound.

"While visitors are being encouraged to pay a visit to Qatar's museums, ancient heritage sites and shopping malls, one thing they won't be able to do is visit a church," says Anastasia Hartman, Open Doors' Middle Eastern Advocacy Spokesperson.

"The nation's vibrant Christian community has been completely hidden from view."

All officially registered Christian churches in Qatar all reside inside a single compound in the capital Doha: the Mesaymeer complex. It is open to Christians that are part of the country's sizeable expatriate community, with non-Muslim visitors also allowed access.

The churches are not allowed any outward religious signs, such as crosses. Indigenous Qataris are not allowed inside the compound. A few other expat churches still exist outside but are not granted any legal permission to practise their religion.

"In 2020, with the spread of Covid-19, the government sent notification to churches saying that permission to gather outside of the complex was suspended," says Anastasia.

"This has left over a hundred churches without permission to operate. Now, the pandemic has eased, the country is open again. However, there is still no sign of churches receiving permission to reopen. There were some signs that the government was going to issue licenses, but this has not happened."

Meanwhile, the small number of indigenous Qatari converts have no official permission to meet or practise. Converting to a non-Muslim religion is considered apostasy and is officially punishable under Islamic Sharia law by death. This has not been carried out for many years, although they face extreme pressure from Muslim families and community members.

Conversion from Islam cannot be officially recognized, causing legal troubles and loss of status, custody of children, and property. Both indigenous and migrant converts risk discrimination, harassment, and police monitoring.

The Mesaymeer Complex was created by the father of the current Emir of Qatar as a step by the government to promote inter religious dialogue.

Anastasia says: "It's a fine gesture. However, now it is way too overcrowded. It's time for Qatar's Christians to go 'free range' – religious expression is a human right and not something to be hidden away as if it's an embarrassment."

Qatar is currently number 18 on Open Doors World Watch List, which ranks the nations in which Christians face the most extreme persecution and discrimination for their faith.

"Article 18 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights say that everyone should be able to express their faith 'in teaching, practice, worship and observance'," says Henrietta Blyth, CEO of Open Doors UK and Ireland.

"While we appreciate the steps made to house expatriate congregations in the Mesaymeer complex, Open Doors is asking them to allow religious organizations – both expat and indigenous - to operate peacefully, free from monitoring and interference."