A Qatari policeman outside St Mary's Roman Catholic church in Doha (Photo credit by Karim Jaafar/AFP via Getty Images)

The freedom to live out your faith

Qatar proves we need a new definition of freedom of religion

Artillery Row

It’s always been difficult to be a Christian in Qatar. According to both early Christian and Islamic sources, when the Islamic armies conquered the Gulf in 642AD, Christians were given the choice of converting to Islam or surrendering half their possessions. Whilst the Christians in Oman chose to keep their goods and become Muslims, those in Qatar refused to abandon their Christian faith. 

Today, Qatar has a Christian population of around a third of million, almost all migrant workers from places like India and the Philippines, although there are also a small number of Qatari Christians. The country still has some of the most comprehensive restrictions on freedom of religion anywhere in the world, yet watching the media coverage of the World Cup one could be forgiven for thinking that persecution of Christians is not much of an issue in Qatar today. 

In fact, Qatar’s Criminal Code begins by listing hudud crimes — offences according to shari’a for which it is compulsory to impose the penalty set down in the Qur’an or Hadith. These include “apostasy”: leaving Islam for another religion, the penalty for which is execution. According to the Hanbali school of Islamic Law which exists in Saudi Arabia and Qatar that applies to women as well as men. 

Amnesty International has simply ignored the issue

Then there are the ta’zir offences — the non-hudud crimes for which in theory an Islamic state has a degree of discretion as to the penalty it imposes. There is a five-year prison sentence for anyone who “doubts any of the basics or tenets of Islam”. Any meeting “promoting another religion” also merits up to five years’ imprisonment, effectively banning any form of church gathering even behind closed doors). Possessing documents, printed publications or audio recordings “favouring” another religion can lead to two years in prison. The wide-ranging blasphemy clause includes not just insulting God or Muhammad, but “offending the Islamic religion or any of its rites and dictates”. The latter effectively imposes up to a seven-year sentence for merely criticising any of the above laws. A further clause specifically states that “nothing is an offence” if the action is justified by Islamic shari’a — effectively legitimising the vigilante killing of Christian converts from Islam. Qatar has one of the most comprehensive sets of laws restricting freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) anywhere in the world.

Secular human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International have simply ignored the issue, preferring to focus on more politically popular minority groups. Whilst it might be easy to accuse them of playing identity politics, a deeper reason is that almost all human rights organisations focus on Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). All it does is make a general statement: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” Then it gives two examples of what that includes: the right to change and the right to “manifest” religion or belief. When the text was drafted, the UK actually submitted a far more specific draft text which included for example, the freedom “to endeavour to persuade other persons of full age and sound mind of the truth of his beliefs”.

This was opposed by Islamic countries as being incompatible with shari’a, the Islamic law on which Qatar’s criminal code is based. After the UN General Assembly had voted for the declaration, Egypt, which had actually been on the drafting committee, immediately expressed public reservations about the right to change one’s religion.

Home churches have not been permitted to reopen since the pandemic

Even for expatriate Christians in Qatar, freedom of religion extends only to being able to meet in a single, officially-sanctioned church complex. A number of smaller churches which met in homes prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 were shut down during the pandemic and have not been permitted to reopen.

Qatar’s Emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani, has been cautiously introducing reforms in a very conservative Islamic society. Western nations’ failure to promote a clear, concrete definition of what freedom of religion really looks like doesn’t much help. 

When we established the Lindisfarne Centre for the Study of Christian Persecution, whilst not ignoring Article 18, we consciously decided to use those aspects of freedom of religion which had developed over the centuries among the countries of the English-speaking world:

  •  Freedom of the church from state interference, including freedom to interpret scripture without government interference.
  • Freedom to translate and own scripture in the vernacular and read it publicly.
  • Freedom of worship.
  • Freedom from being required to act against one’s beliefs.
  • Freedom to establish places of worship.
  • Freedom to preach and try to convince others of the truth of one’s beliefs.
  • Freedom to choose or change one’s faith.
  • Freedom from being required to affirm a particular worldview, i.e. religious or philosophical beliefs, in order to hold public office, enter various professions or study at university (absence of “Test Acts”).
  • Freedom of parents to educate children according to their own beliefs.
  • Freedom to criticise the religious or philosophical beliefs of others (absence of blasphemy laws etc).

When we analysed Qatar against these criteria, we found that it only actually met one of those ten aspects: the freedom to establish churches. That only applied to foreigners and even then, it was highly restricted. 

We need a new, more concrete definition of what freedom of religion embraces, not least because we owe it to countries like Qatar to spell out the specific areas they need to address to improve and to do so in ways that are actually intelligible to ordinary people there. 

English-speaking nations shouldn’t be afraid to highlight those aspects of freedom of religion which over the centuries became important in our own countries. Nor should we assume that these would be less acceptable in the Middle East than the somewhat abstract statement of Article 18.  In the Arab world there is enormous respect for “the trodden path”, the way that previous generations found to be good. Of course, not everything we say is going to be accepted, but when we have a gift like this, we should offer it to the world.

Dr Martin Parsons is CEO of the Lindisfarne Centre for the Study of Christian Persecution which was launched at the end of November. Its profile of Qatar is available online.

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