By Courtney Mares and Elias Turk
When Father Charbel Mhanna needs to acquire altar wine for Mass, he must use a special card issued by the government of Qatar at the only venue that sells alcohol to residents of the country.
The 2022 FIFA World Cup’s stadium beer ban irked many soccer fans who traveled to the Arabian Peninsula for the international sporting event, but Qatar’s alcohol laws are just a minor restriction compared with what Catholic priests face ministering in the Muslim-majority country, where public displays of Christian religion are forbidden.
Father Mhanna has lived in Qatar for nine years. Originally from Lebanon, he ministers to Maronite Catholics living in Qatar as well as Italian and French-speaking communities at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary in Doha.
In an interview in Arabic with ACI Mena, CNA’s news partner in the Middle East, Mhanna explained that there are no bells or crosses on church buildings in Qatar.
“It is not possible to preach or grant the sacrament of baptism to the descendants of non-Christians or to convert from one religion to another,” Mhanna said.
He added that “churches are considered embassies” that deal with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Religious processions are only allowed to take place within the walls of the Qatar Religious Complex, a complex opened in 2008 that holds six different churches: Roman Catholic, Anglican, Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and an interdenominational group for Indian expatriate Christian communities.
“Copies of the Bible can [only] be distributed inside the church complex campus,” Mhanna said.
On the other hand, the priest noted that he has not faced any censorship in his homilies and is free to go out to minister to Catholics in Qatar, many of whom are foreign workers.
“We give eucharistic Communion to patients in hospitals without any problem and we can pray in cemeteries, as there are tombs for non-Muslims,” he said.
“We also have every liberty to preach. No one ever interfered with my sermons. We recite our spiritual words without restrictions,” he added.
When it comes to marriages, however, the priest is only allowed to celebrate a wedding between two Christians. He said: “If a Christian wants to marry a Muslim, they cannot get married in our church. We usually invite them to marry in another country.”
The Apostolic Vicariate of Northern Arabia estimates that about 200,000 to 300,000 Catholics live in Qatar. All are migrant workers, mainly from the Philippines and India.
According to the vicariate, employment and camp rules can make participation in Catholic liturgies impossible for some of these workers. The Catholic community also struggles with restrictions on the number of priests allowed in the country and the limited capacity of its church inside the religious complex.
Mhanna is currently overseeing the construction of a new Catholic church in Qatar — a Maronite Catholic church that will have a capacity of 1,500 people.
“Qatar provided land on which we can build today a church in the name of St. Charbel,” he said.
Cardinal Bechara Boutros Rai, the Maronite Catholic patriarch, laid the foundation stone for the church in 2018 at the invitation of Qatar’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
“The church is in the process of being finished,” Mhanna said.
Being a priest in the smallest country to ever host the World Cup also comes with some perks. Mhanna was able to attend the opening match of the soccer tournament along with other Christian leaders who minister in the Qatar Religious Complex.
“We sat near the seats designated for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and church representatives were wearing pectoral crosses without any problem,” he said.