A parish hidden amongst the dunes

From a passing car, you would never know that behind the white wall lining the sandy asphalt road lies the Catholic mission of Doha. Serving the whole of Qatar, the mission does not even have a church bell to signal its existence. Passing through the main gate is a bewildering experience - a few children’s toboggans, seven small prefabricated buildings, one small permanent structure … but nothing else. Not even a church.

“It’s always been impossible to build one”, explained Father John Vandeerlin, a 54 year old Californian who has been in the country for the last thirteen years to the Vatican press agency Fides at the World Trade Organisation meeting in Doha (9-14 November), “The Wahhabi Muslims, the country’s majority religion, have always considered such a thing as a profanation of holy ground”. However, thanks to the intervention of western ambassadors, the government has gradually relaxed its stance; an area previously reserved for the military is to be shared between Catholics and Anglicans, and towards the end of 1999 the government gave its approval to construct the first Catholic Church at Doha. This was a enormous step, not least from an institutional perspective, as Father Vandeerlin explains: “For the first time Christians will be able to come out into the open, they won’t have to be in hiding any more”.

In the interim, moves are being made to cater for the different needs of the parish. The catechism is printed by the Mission, as importing books and crucifixes is forbidden (the crucifixes are made by hand out of wood at the Mission). Mass is celebrated in private, as the government dictates that Christians must be “invisible”.

In fact, it is the celebrating of mass that occupies most of the priest’s time. Each week he travels the country to meet with different Catholic communities, composed mainly of immigrants, and conducts on average eighteen masses per week, some as far as 100 km from Doha. Judging from the number of Hosts stored at the sacristy, many attend these masses. Parishioners travelling abroad on business or for pleasure are asked to bring more back with them to meet the demand.

Out of the 600,000 inhabitants of Qatar, 82.7% are Muslims and 10.4% are Christians - of which 36,000 are Catholic.

Translation by Human Rights Without Frontiers