Christianity comes to Qatar

Second ComingSaudi Arabia, by fiat, has snuffed out religious liberty. All churches are banned there, as are all public displays of non-Muslim faiths.

The hardline Wahhabi version of Islam has been the official religion of the Saudi state since 1932.  All Saudis are required to be Muslim. The law of the land is sharia. The Qur’an is the constitution. In fact, life is so tough for “infidels” there that the state outlaws freedom of thought because “freedom of thinking requires permitting the denial of faith,” according to the Center for Religious Freedom.

The Saudi stance is severe but common in Muslim majority countries, where Christians in particular are persecuted. In fact, Christians are the most ill-treated religious group in the world today, according to studies by the Vatican, Pew Research Center, the Economist, and others. Christians are the victims of three-quarters of the world’s recorded acts of religious intolerance.

But why? A compelling new book, “Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians,” offers three reasons. “First is the hunger for total political control, exhibited by the communist and post-Communist regimes,” according to authors Paul Marshall, Lela Gilbert, and Nina Shea. “The second is the desire by some to preserve Hindu or Buddhist privilege, as is evident in South Asia. The third is radical Islam’s urge for religious dominance, which at present is generating an expanding global crisis.”

The stories are chilling, and the case against Islamist states is deeply disturbing. Still, there’s hope. A case in point: Saudi Arabia’s tiny neighbor, Qatar.

A diplomat’s coup

Qatar (pronounced “Cutter”) shares the Saudis’ Wahhabi brand of Islam and banned Christianity for 1400 years. That changed in 1988, when the government for the first time allowed a public Christian service. Thanks for this monumental shift in policy goes to a U.S. diplomat.

Joseph Ghougassian was born in Egypt. Fluent in Arabic and well versed in Islam, he reached out to the head of Qatar’s Sharia Court. Over a period of months, the U.S. envoy to Qatar engaged him on the points of religion and history.

“His extraordinary experience deserves examination,” according to the authors of “Persecuted.” Ghougassian “challenged the principal rationale Saudi Arabia offers today for why it bans churches – that all the country is sacred ground that ‘infidels’ like Christians and Jews must not defile with their prayers. The ambassador pointed out this applied only to Mecca and Medina, which are only a small part of the country, a country whose national borders did not exist at the time of Islam’s prophet Muhammad.”

Equally compelling, Ghougassian said to the Sheikh of Qatar’s Sharia Court: “Well, Allah forbid, if you were to die tomorrow, and you appeared in front of Allah, do you think Allah would be pleased with you? Do you think that Allah might complain by telling you, ‘My son, what have you done to those hundreds of thousands of Christian souls who lived and worked in Qatar when you were the head of the Sharia Court? Look in the Gehennam [hell]. There they are. Because you prohibited them from openly professing their faith and performing their religious duties toward me, they forgot me, stopped worshipping me, and went astray on the wrong path.’”

The Sheikh accepted the ambassador’s request for a public gathering of Christians to pray to “Allah” (the Arabic term for God that Arab Christians used long before the rise of Islam). And on Friday, Sept. 3, 1988, for the first time since the 7th Century A.D., the nation’s first Catholic Holy Mass and Christian service was publicly celebrated. It was followed by at least one every week thereafter. Today even Hindus and Buddhists are permitted to hold worship services in Qatar.

It’s an extraordinary story of one man’s conviction that every person should be free to worship according to the dictates of his or her own conscience. And it’s a reminder that the glorious gospel of Christ still penetrates the darkest places on earth.

May God place daring diplomats like Joseph Ghougassian in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other Islamist states.

This column first appeared July 2, 2013, in The Pathway, the news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.