23 March 2008

A Historic Easter in Doha

Last Saturday, I attended consecration ceremonies at the new Our Lady of the Rosary Church here in Doha. Any consecration is of course a special occaision, but this was the first church of any denomination to be built in Qatar in more than 1400 years.

Most states in the Gulf region have had hostile attitudes towards religions other than Islam for some time. In response to diplomatic pressures and the economic realities of needing to rely on an expatriate work-force, most have been gradually loosening these restrictions. Dubai has several large churches, and the Catholic and other churches have been operating more or less freely in Kuwait, Bahrain and Oman for some time now. The two Wahabi states, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Qatar, have been the slowest to liberalise. Saudi Arabia continues to forbid the practice of any religion other than Islam, and priests who serve in the active underground church community there are subject to detention, torture and expulsion. As it is has in so many other areas, Qatar has dealt with the issue by trying to have it both ways. Churches have been formally banned, but buildings such as the shed-like structure I have been going to every Sunday for the past few months for Mass are ignored, with the understanding that the church does nothing to draw attention to them. Now the Emir has decided to take a step forward, and he has made a gift of land to several congregations so that real churches can be built here for the first time since the arrival of Islam in the 7th century (which of course in the Islamic calendar is the 1st century). My own Catholic church was the first, but it is to be followed by Anglican, Coptic and Orthodox churches, and an Indian church to be shared by 11 different Indian denominations.

This does not, however, mean the end of Qatar's tradition of ambivalence on this and other issues. As is the case elsewhere in the region, no overtly religious symbols – such as crosses – are permitted on the exterior, as are bells and steeples. Additionally, the land the Emir so generously gifted is a half hour drive outside of Doha, in the middle of flat, stony desert area it shares with petroleum storage tanks and power substations. You can see the church on the horizon in the photo below.
Although the church is finished, the road leading to it and the car park are not. The last 500 meters of the drive there was over rough, stony ground that was harder to drive on than the off-road desert tracks I've been cruising around on the weekends. The "car park" was just an area of field that some half-hearted effort had been made to remove the larger boulders from.

If all these things are not enough to discourage attendance, it has been reported that muslim extremist web-sites have made threats against the new church, if warnings provided by the American, British and Australian embassies are to be believed. (The Brits and the Australians have subsequently removed their warnings pertaining to the church).

All of this aside, it was a beautiful, if long (four hours) ceremony. I was exceptionally fortunate in getting a place to sit – thousands stood through the entire thing, including 2000 who were only able to watch it outside on giant video screens. I stood for the first half-hour or so, but one of the features of the ceremony – the "parade of nations," in which representatives from the 70-odd nationalities represented amongst the parishoners entered the church behind their national flags – resulted in the organisers reserving more seats than needed near the front, and once that part of the ceremony was over I was able to take one of the reserved seats for myself.
This must have been about 90 minutes into the 4-hour long consecration ceremony

The highlight of the ceremony was the depositing of the "relics" of Saint Padre Pio da Pietrelcina, a Capuchin monk who died in 1968 after spontaneously developing cruxifiction-type bleeding wounds on his hands and feet, into a reliquary built into the church's altar. None of the official material on the church or the ceremony have been terribly explicit about the nature of these relics. All that I can say is that when the presiding Bishop held the relics aloft and announced that he was about to place them in the altar, I couldn't really see anything, although I was sitting fairly close. Whatever parts they were, I think it's safe to say that the Vatican sent the better bits, such as his skull or femur, off to some other, more important church.

A happy and blessed Easter to all.

23 March 2008

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great Post! I have been living in Doha for the last four years and it was a great news for me to know about this church. I already attended to the Christmas celebration held in 2008.