Section I. Freedom of Religion
There is no constitutional protection for freedom of religion. The state religion is Islam, as interpreted by the puritanical Wahhabi order of the Sunni branch. The Government officially prohibits public worship by non-Muslims; however, it tolerates and protects services conducted privately with prior notification to the authorities. The Government allows Shi'a Muslims to practice their faith freely; however, community leaders have agreed to refrain from certain public practices, such as self-flagellation.
The Government and ruling family are inextricably linked to the practice of Islam. The Ministry of Islamic Affairs controls the construction of mosques, the administration of clerical affairs, and instruction in the Koran. The Minister of Islamic Affairs is a member of the Emir's cabinet and participates in policymaking at the highest level. The only official government holidays aside from the independence day are the Eid al-Fitr, following the holy month of Ramadan, and the Eid al-Adha, which commemorates the end of the Hajj. The Emir participates in widely publicized "Eid prayers" and each year personally finances the Hajj pilgrimages of many who cannot afford to travel to Mecca.
While Islam is the state religion, a large foreign population practices other faiths, albeit privately and quietly. Most foreigners are concentrated in and around the capital city of Doha. In addition to Muslim foreigners, there are a significant number of Christians (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and other Protestant denominations), as well as smaller numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha'is living and working in the country. The Christian community consists of a diverse mix of Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Indians, and Filipinos. The Hindu community is almost exclusively Indian. Buddhists are found among the East Asian community, and a small number of ethnic Persians make up the Baha'i community. The Shi'a community has a small number of mosques.
There are no reliable population figures available; however, the population is estimated to be about 650,000. Of that number, about 170,000 are believed to be citizens. It is estimated that the majority of the remaining 480,000 persons are Sunni Muslim foreigners, and that the rest are Shi'a Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha'is.
The police provide traffic control for authorized Catholic services, which may be attended by up to l,000 or more persons at times, such as on Easter and Christmas. In addition, Christmas decorations, trees, and cards were all observed for sale in department stores during Eid al-Fitr. In March 1999, a number of cards and decorations were sold that carried depictions of the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, and other secular Easter symbols.
There are no restrictions on non-Muslims providing religious instruction to their children; however, the public schools provide compulsory instruction in Islam. The public schools generally are closed to foreigners, most of whose children attend any of a number of private schools.
Non-Muslims may not proselytize, and conversion from Islam is theoretically a capital offense. However, there is no record of an execution for such a conversion since independence in 1971.
The Government prohibits the publication, importation, and distribution of Bibles and other non-Islamic religious literature. However, in practice individuals generally are not prevented from importing Bibles and other religious items for personal use. There were a small number of incidents in which recordings of Christian music and videos were seized by customs authorities.
Practice of Islam confers advantage in civil life. For example, non-Muslims do not have the right to bring suit in the Shari'a (Islamic law) courts. These courts are utilized to settle the majority of civil claims; thus, non-Muslims are at a distinct disadvantage.
The overall trend during the period covered by this report has been toward somewhat more religious freedom for Christian worship. Private discussions between the Government and the ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Romania, and South Korea have yielded progress in the area of religious freedom. The Government stated that it soon would allow the recognized Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican communities to rent private villas for use as worship facilities; however, no outwardly visible symbols such as bells or crosses are to be allowed. According to government officials, this is to be the first step toward a long-term goal of allowing the religious groups to use plots of land on which to build their own churches.
Such progress for Christians is due, in large part, to their status as "people of the book;" the Koran accords special status to Christians and Jews. The Government intends neither to permit Hindus and Buddhists to worship openly nor to establish temples because it claims that there is no Koranic justification for tolerance of polytheistic religions.
There were no reports of religious detainees or prisoners.
There were no reports that the Government forcibly converted any individuals. However, a criminal may have his or her sentence reduced by memorizing the Koran. For non-Muslim prisoners, this may create an incentive to convert to Islam.
There were no reports of the forced religious conversion of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted or illegally removed from the United States, or of the Government's refusal to allow such citizens to be returned to the United States.
Section II. Societal Attitudes
Relations between persons of differing religious beliefs generally are amicable and tolerant. Out of respect for the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which began on December 19, 1998, stores voluntarily removed their Christmas displays in the days before Ramadan began. However, a sizable percentage of the citizen population opposes the construction of Christian churches.
Discrimination in the areas of employment, education, housing, and health services occurs, at times along religious lines. Non-Muslims hold jobs in the Government and military; however, they are generally technical positions. In general Muslims hold all positions of authority in the Government, with citizens holding higher level positions and foreign Muslims holding lower positions. Shi'a Muslims experience discrimination in employment in sensitive areas, such as security and education. However, the critical factor in most cases of discrimination is citizenship. Muslim and non-Muslim foreigners face the same challenges. Health care, electricity, water, and education are provided free-of-charge to citizens, while foreigners must pay for these services. Citizens also may receive low- or no-interest home loans from the Government. Foreigners must rent housing because they are not permitted to own property.
Section III. U.S. Government Policy
The Ambassador, Deputy Chief of Mission, and Political Officer meet regularly with government officials at many levels to address the issue of religious freedom, both in public and in private. The issue has been raised with the Emir, the Foreign Minister, the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, the director of the European and American Affairs Department, and the deputy director of the European and American Affairs Department. Efforts to emphasize religious freedom are also being coordinated with the Embassies of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Romania, and South Korea.
The Government has been receptive to the pleas from foreign governments to allow the construction of Christian churches, as evidenced by recent progress (see Section I). Its main concern is that the process should proceed slowly so as not to create undue opposition among more conservative elements of the population in the hope that, by taking the time to lay the groundwork, opposition will be minimal.
The Ambassador has offered to host a reunion for a number of Qatari youths who participated in the "Seeds of Peace" program. This program brings Arab and Israeli youths together in a summer camp atmosphere in the United States. The youths spend time learning about conflict resolution and cultural and religious perspectives.