International Religious Freedom Report
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor

The Constitution provides no explicit protection for freedom of religion and the Government continues to prohibit public worship by non-Muslims; however, it does permit private worship for "peoples of the book," (i.e., Christians and Jews). The official state religion follows the conservative Wahhabi tradition of the Hanbali school of Islam.

During the period covered by this report, the Government took substantive steps to improve religious freedom somewhat by continuing to recognize officially some Christian congregations and by proceeding with plans to construct Christian churches in the capital, Doha. Non-Muslims may not proselytize, and the Government formally prohibits the publication, importation, and distribution of non-Islamic religious books and materials. However, in practice, individuals generally are not prevented from importing Bibles and other religious items for personal use. At times government practices may have the effect of discriminating along religious lines. For example, all government positions of authority are reserved for citizens, which effectively limits those positions to Muslims. Also, Shi'a Muslims, with close family and sectarian ties to other countries in the region, effectively are barred from employment in certain sensitive areas involving state security.

There are generally amicable relations among persons of differing religious beliefs; however, many Muslims oppose the construction of permanent Christian churches.

The U.S. Government discussed religious freedom issues with the Government in the context of its overall dialog and policy of promoting human rights. The U.S. Ambassador and embassy officials meet regularly with government officials to discuss issues of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The country has a total land area of approximately 4,254 square miles and its population is estimated at more than 650,000 persons, of whom approximately 170,000 are believed to be citizens. The majority of the 480,000 non-citizens are Sunni Muslims mostly from other Arab countries working on temporary employment contracts, and their accompanying family members. The remaining foreigners include Shi'a Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baha'is.

The Christian community is a diverse mix of Indians, Filipinos, Europeans, Arabs, and Americans. It includes Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, and other Protestant denominations. The Hindu community is almost exclusively Indian, while Buddhists include South and East Asians. Most Baha'is come from Iran. Both citizens and foreigners attend a small number of Shi'a mosques. There is no information regarding the number of atheists in the country.

No foreign missionary groups operate openly in the country.

Most foreign workers and their families live near the major employment centers in and around the city of Doha, although a growing number now live near the natural gas projects located in the northern part of the country.

Section II. Status of Religious Freedom

Legal/Policy Framework

There is no constitutional protection for freedom of religion, and the Government officially prohibits public worship by non-Muslims; however, it does permit and protect private religious services that have received prior authorization. The state religion is Islam, as interpreted by the conservative Wahhabi order of the Sunni branch. While Shi'a Muslims practice most aspects of their faith freely, they do not organize traditional Shi'a ceremonies or perform rites such as self-flagellation.

The Government and ruling family are linked inextricably to Islam. The Minister of Islamic Affairs controls the construction of mosques, the administration of clerical affairs, and Islamic education. The Emir participates in public prayers during both Eid holiday periods, and personally finances the Hajj journeys of poor pilgrims who cannot afford to travel to Mecca.

The Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches received de facto official recognition in the latter part of 1999, when the Government made a verbal commitment to allow the churches to operate without interference. The Government has respected this commitment in practice, but it has not granted these churches formal recognition by the end of the period covered by this report. The Government does not recognize any other religions, officially or unofficially. It does not maintain an official approved register of religious congregations.

The Government officially celebrates Eid Al-Fitr, following the holy month of Ramadan, and the Eid Al-Adha, which commemorates Abraham's sacrifice, as well as the country's independence day.

Restrictions on Religious Freedom

The Orthodox, Catholic, and Anglican churches operate openly, and the Anglican Church, with its ties to preindependence British influence, has bank accounts in its name. However, the lack of formal government recognition limits their ability to obtain trade licenses, sponsor clergy, or, for Catholic and Orthodox churches, the ability to open bank accounts in the name of the church.

Non-Muslims may not proselytize, and the Government officially prohibits public worship by non-Muslims. However, it does permit and protect private services. Converting from Islam is considered apostasy, and is technically a capital offense; however, there is no record of an execution for such a crime since 1971.

Non-Muslim religious services must be authorized in advance by the Government. Although traffic police may direct cars at these services, the congregations may not publicly advertise them in advance or use visible religious symbols such as outdoor crosses. Some services, particularly those on Easter and Christmas, can draw more than 1,300 worshippers.

The Government does not permit Hindus, Buddhists, or other polytheistic religions to operate as freely as Christian congregations. (The Koran does not specifically enjoin toleration for such religions.) However, there is no official effort to harass or hamper adherents of these faiths in the private practice or their religion.

Discrimination in the areas of employment, education, housing, and health services do occur, but nationality is usually a more important determinant than religion. For example, Muslims hold nearly all high-ranking government positions because they are reserved for citizens. On the other hand, Shi'a Muslims generally are restricted from employment in areas deemed critical to national security.

Non-citizens, including both Muslims and non-Muslims, do not receive the same benefits as citizens. They must pay for health care, electricity, water, and education (services that are provided free of charge to citizens), and they are not permitted to own property.

The Government formally prohibits the publication, importation, and distribution of non-Islamic religious literature; however, in practice individuals generally are not prevented from importing Bibles and other religious items for personal use. In previous years, there were sporadic reports of confiscation of such materials by customs officials; however, during the period covered by this report, Christian worship groups reported having no trouble importing religious instructional materials (i.e., Sunday school materials and devotionals) for their use. In addition, religious materials for use at Christmas and Easter now are available readily in local shops.

Islamic instruction is compulsory in public schools. While there are no restrictions on non-Muslims providing private religious instruction for children, most foreign children attend secular private schools.

Muslims may enjoy some advantages in legal proceedings. For example, Muslim litigants may request the Shari'a courts to assume jurisdiction in commercial or civil cases; non-Muslims are restricted to civil courts. Also, Muslim criminals may have their sentences reduced by memorizing the Koran.

The legal system follows Shari'a law in matters of inheritance and child custody. Muslims have the automatic right to inherit from their spouses; however non-Muslim spouses (invariably wives, since Muslim women cannot legally marry non-Muslims) do not inherit unless their spouse formally wills them a portion (up to one third of the total) of their estates. In cases of divorce, young children usually remain with the mother, whatever her religion. However, the Government will not allow noncitizen parents, even if they have custody of their children, to take them out of the country without the permission of the citizen parent, which effectively discriminates against non-Muslim parents.

There were no reports of religious prisoners or detainees.

Forced Religious Conversion

There were no reports of forced religious conversion, including 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.

Improvements and Positive Developments in Respect for Religious Freedom

The overall trend during the period covered by this report was toward somewhat more religious freedom for Christian worship. Private conversations between the Government and the ambassadors of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Romania, and South Korea have encouraged the Government to maintain this atmosphere.

During the period covered by this report, the Catholic Church developed plans and raised funds to begin construction of a church. The church building is to be located on a portion of the site reserved by the Government for the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox communities. However, fundraising problems have delayed the other congregations in completing their plans. The Government has voiced concerns that a rapid pace of progress may provoke opposition among more conservative citizens.

Section III. Societal Attitudes

Relations between persons of differing religious beliefs generally are amicable and tolerant; however, a sizable percentage of the citizen population opposes the construction of permanent Christian churches.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy

The U.S. Ambassador and other embassy officers regularly meet with government officials, both publicly and privately, to address religious freedom issues. Such matters have been raised with the Emir (the Chief of State), the Foreign Minister, and several other government officials. To increase the impact, the U.S. Embassy coordinates these discussions with the embassies of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Romania, and South Korea.

U.S. Embassy officers have taken the lead in bringing government officials and lay church leaders together to discuss toleration and understanding of non-Islamic worship. The Government has been receptive to quiet dialog, as evidenced by its offer to donate land for, and assist in, the construction of Christian churches.