World Cup host Qatar must embrace religious freedom

November 17, 2022 by Josh Depenbrok in Middle East

This year, Qatar will become the first Arab nation to ever host the World Cup. The oil-rich country, roughly the size of Connecticut, has spent billions of dollars in recent years on infrastructure and construction preparing for the international championship soccer event, including the creation of eight cutting-edge stadiums in five different cities. Multiple tourism campaigns—including one featuring soccer superstar David Beckham—have attempted to showcase the best of the nation.

But behind the polished veneers of the sparkling stadiums and Instagram videos of Beckham wandering through spice markets, things in Qatar aren’t as pristine as they seem.

Since winning hosting rights for the World Cup more than a decade ago, Qatar has imported hundreds of thousands of migrant workers and faced intense scrutiny for their treatment. The tiny emirate relies heavily on migrant labor—1.7 million people in fact—representing 90% of the workforce. According to an investigative report by The Guardian, at least 6,500 migrant workers have died while employed in the country since the World Cup was awarded. Deaths have been attributed to poor safety conditions, working too many hours in the intense Qatari heat and unacceptable living quarters. Qatar’s government has largely downplayed the circumstances surrounding these workers, but the numbers don’t lie.

This is where religious freedom comes into play.

Christians and religious minorities make up a sizable portion of the migrant laborers in Qatar. And at first glance, it looks like the government has taken some commendable measures to ensure Christians and other worshipers are able to practice their faiths. Qatari rulers even donated a plot of land for Christians to build multiple churches 20 years ago. But this is the only compound allotted for building churches in the whole nation, so the complex is now overcrowded. Christians are confined to worship in this single designated compound, and Qatari law restricts public worship for non-Islamic faiths. As many as 90 unregistered house churches temporarily banned from worshipping outside the Mesaymeer compound have yet to receive permission from the government to hold services.

To make matters worse, Christian churches are not allowed to evangelize, and the law prohibits non-Muslim religious groups from displaying religious symbols. Indigenous Qataris who have converted to Christianity and other religions find it nearly impossible to practice their faith under the government’s strict interpretation of Sharia Law. Muslims in Qatar do not have the right and liberty to change their religion, and apostasy is punishable by death. The penal code highlights a range of other offenses, such as misinterpreting the Quran, offending Islam or insulting the prophets. Christians are not the only religious minorities to face persecution. During the run-up to the World Cup, the Qatari government is accused of promoting the religious cleansing of the Baha’i community.

The influence of tribalism in Qatari society is extensive, and conversion from Islam to another religion is interpreted as betraying one’s family and the family honor. Christians converts are forced to hide their faith to avoid dire consequences like police monitoring, intimidation, job loss and exclusion from society. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to having their freedoms severely curtailed by their Muslim families, including house arrest without access to outside communication. Both men and women could also lose custody of their children.

With the spotlight on Qatar, now is the time for religious freedom advocates to call on the government to make significant changes. Qatari rulers should stop considering apostasy as a criminal offense and ensure that freedom of religion, including the freedom to change one’s religion, is fully respected.

The government should allow all indigenous Qataris and expats to worship wherever they choose. The ban on house churches must be immediately lifted, and places of worship must be able to carry out their peaceful religious activities without monitoring or interference. The Qatari government should issue a law guaranteeing protection from discrimination, so that Christians and religious minorities can’t be fired based on religious identification. Finally, Qatari leaders should promote and set up initiatives that involve individuals at the local level and educate the wider population on the value of religious tolerance.

Implementing these steps would show the world that Qatar is as serious about religious freedom as it is about proving it belongs on the world stage.

Top photo: Associated Press, Hassan Ammar

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