The Rev. Bill Schwartz, an Anglican priest and an Episcopal Church missionary, stands in front of the Doha skyline. Photo: Matthew Davies/ENS
Friday evening in Qatar and the Islamic call to prayer echoes throughout the capital city Doha, but it’s not just the Muslim community that is preparing for worship.
In a section of Doha, in an expanding development that has come to be known as Church City, thousands of Christian migrant workers worship freely with the blessing of the Qatari authorities.
Christianity in this Islamic state was once an underground religion, but today it thrives, thanks in part to people like the Rev. Bill Schwartz, an Anglican priest and an Episcopal Church missionary.
In one part of Church City, Schwartz is overseeing the construction of an Anglican Centre. More than 10,000 Protestant Christians from 37 denominations already worship in the Angican Centre and many more are waiting for space to become available.
"What we’re establishing, not only in the building but in our presence here, in our relationships, and in the image of Christianity that the local people have – is what will be the foundation for the relationships of Christians and Muslims in this country for the next 50 or 60 years," Schwartz told ENS. "It’s a great privilege, it’s a great responsibility, but certainly we’re seeing God’s blessing and we’re all rejoicing."
The Roman Catholics, the Syrian Orthodox and a group of Indian churches have already completed their buildings in Church City. Meanwhile, the Coptic Orthodox, Greek Orthodox and the Anglicans continue to make good progress, Schwartz said.
Until recently, Qatar was seen as a purely Islamic country, but as new leadership tapped vast natural gas resources, economic development exploded. The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, knowing that such development brings migrant labor and different faith traditions, provided the land for Church City.
The emir is widely supported for using Qatar’s national wealth for the good of the country’s people – for developing infrastructure, healthcare and education.
Qatar is now ranked as the richest country in the world per capita, yet the vast majority of the Christians living in the country come from developing countries and work for low wages in the construction or service industry, Schwartz explained. He continues to interact with the government on their behalf.
"We all appreciate the encouragement we receive from the government to establish the presence of the Christian community in this country through the building of churches, even though none of the citizens of Qatar are Christians," said Schwartz. "Even so, there are hundreds of thousands of Christians who have found employment and have made a life here, and our churches are overflowing."
On most days of the week the Anglican Centre is used for worship or other religious events such as Bible study and youth activities. But on Friday — the day of worship in Islamic countries, and the one day of the week most people have off from work — the center comes alive with a strictly timed roster of worshipping congregations from various Christian traditions, including those from Africa, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.
Ministry to children is also an essential service of the center, with rooms specially designed to accommodate Sunday school, known as Friday school in this context. One African pastor explained how, until the Anglican Centre opened, the children had to meet outside in the desert heat and dust.
Schwartz, who also serves as archdeacon of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, is committed to ensuring that the Anglican Centre runs like clockwork. But he also gives thanks for a committed team and he says he is well aware of the need to delegate and to encourage new leaders throughout the community.
Even so, there are certain roles that only Schwartz can fulfill. He is one of only two priests currently licensed to perform Christian weddings in Qatar. As such, preparing couples for the lifelong commitment of marriage is an important ministry and Schwartz has performed 104 weddings in just over two-and-a-half years.
Schwartz is widely respected for his ministry in Qatar and his 38 years of service in the Middle East as a whole. It’s a ministry for which in 2007 he was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, an award bestowed on individuals by the British sovereign.
Schwartz also ministers to his own congregation, the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany, which continues to meet in a school gymnasium until ample space becomes available at the Anglican Centre. The congregation includes about 600 people and forms part of the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf.
"We have the most international congregation I have ever seen in the Church of the Epiphany," said Schwartz. "The incredible cooperation between Christians across the whole Pentecostal-evangelical-traditional spectrum in funding and building this church is a testimony to a kind of Christian unity not seen in many places in this world."
Construction began at the Anglican Centre in August 2008, but the building is still only one-third complete and the project needs $5 million. Despite the wealth of the nation and its tolerance towards Christianity, it would be deemed unethical in the eyes of the Islamic authorities for Qatari citizens to back the center financially, so fundraising by local Christians is essential.
Jaywant Michael, a member of the Epiphany congregation who serves on the finance committee for the building project, said: "Even though it’s called the Anglican Centre, it’s actually for the entire community here. It gives us a clear identity and a presence in this place. We need to be thankful that we are able to worship in this place quite freely."
An additional 23 denominations are looking for worship space, and Schwartz knows of many more Christians who may want to use the center in the future.
"It is really important to show the local people that Christianity is not a Western religion, but Christianity is a global religion," said the Rev. Jebaraj Devasagayam, who recently came from the Church of South India to assist Schwartz with his pastoral responsibilities in Qatar.
Devasagayam also leads one of the newest communities at the Anglican Centre, a Tamil congregation.
"When I came to Doha thinking that I am going to worship in an Anglican church I didn’t ever imagine half of the variety we have here," he said. "It shows 16 million colors."
— Matthew Davies is editor and international correspondent of the Episcopal News Service.