DOHA, Qatar — Behind closed doors on Friday, in small rooms usually used for teaching catechism, the children celebrated Christmas.
There was food, drink and songs. Wreaths and stockings decorated the walls. A few adults wore red Santa hats.
Nearby, across the complex of mostly unmarked sand-colored buildings, a Mass was being celebrated in a 2,700-seat sanctuary, its altar backed by painted angels and Jesus on a cross. There would be another mass every hour, 15 of them on Friday, said in 10 different languages: English, Tagalog, Indonesian, Korean, Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, Konkani, Sinhala, Arabic.
“We do as many masses as possible, to make people feel they belong somewhere,” Rev. Rally Gonzaga said.
The busiest place on Fridays in Doha might not be at any World Cup soccer stadium. It could be this sanctioned island of Christianity — the only one in the country — on the dusty southern edge of Doha.
The Qataris, and their road signs, cryptically call it the Religious Complex. Most others refer to it as Church City.
And at the center of the eight churches planted here, from Anglican to Greek Orthodox, is the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary. Father Rally, as congregants call him, is a 52-year-old from the Philippines. He leads a team of 11 priests.
This church has an estimated congregation of 200,000 — or it did, Father Rally said, before the coronavirus pandemic, and maybe before Qatar finished or suspended the construction projects related to the World Cup that had employed so many migrant workers. Now, maybe it is 100,000. He is not sure. He just knows that they come in droves.
“Most people are social beings, so they want community,” Father Rally said. “They want belongingness.”
A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup
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Qatar is a nation deeply rooted in Islam. Calls to prayer can be heard five times a day throughout Doha. World Cup stadiums have prayer rooms for fans, and some staff at the games will stop what they’re doing to kneel in prayer.
But there are only about 300,000 Qatari citizens in Qatar, a country with a population of nearly 3 million. It is a segregated and stratified society, where nearly 90 percent of the people are from somewhere else: the global south, mostly — places like India, Nepal, the Philippines, but also many parts of Africa: Egypt and Kenya, Uganda and Sudan.
They are the laborers, the service workers, the housekeepers. Their treatment, or mistreatment, in doing the dirty work of building this gas-rich nation has been a major story line surrounding this World Cup.
Migrants still work in every corner of the labor market. At the soccer stadiums, they are ushers, janitors, concession sellers, ticket takers. In many ways, they are the public face of Qatar, sprinkled through every visitor’s experience.
To have an official presence in Qatar, non-Muslim religious groups must register with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Only eight Christian faiths have been approved.
The country has no approved Hindu shrines or Buddhist temples, no Jewish synagogues.
“Unregistered religious groups are illegal,” the State Department said in a report on international religious freedom, “but authorities generally permitted them to practice their faith privately.”
For Christians seeking community, there is Church City.
It was built away from the city center, amid the vast stretches of open lots and cramped migrant neighborhoods with grim names like the Industrial Area. The buildings are unadorned, as if in disguise. There are no crucifixes or other Christian symbols visible on the outside. The tower on the Catholic church tapers to the sky, but there is no cross at its apex.
That was part of the agreement. Symbols visible to the general public, even in advertising, are not allowed.
“It is a way for us to respect the country because they have given us a place of worship,” Father Rally said. “We’re not thinking that they will be offended, but we will respect the culture.”
The rules give the complex an air of mystery, despite its size and reach. The Anglican Centre, for example, lists 85 congregations that use its building, offering specialized services in dozens of languages. Another part of the compound is for the Syrian Orthodox, another for the Coptic Orthodox. An interdenominational church is a massive catchall.
All of them adhere to Qatar’s workweek, where Friday is the usual day off and Sunday is a work day. So while our Lady of the Rosary offers Mass at least four times a day from Sunday to Wednesday, and about twice that on Thursdays and Saturdays, Friday is, by far, the biggest day of the week.
“There are Muslim traditions, and we have to adapt,” Father Rally said. “Friday is our Sunday.”
Catholic leadership in Vatican City, he said, grants special permission to Our Lady of the Rosary to conduct Sunday’s liturgy two days early.
This past Friday, acres of parking filled with cars. Buses, taxis and Ubers came, went and got stuck in traffic. People streamed into the complex through security gates and metal detectors. Some had walked miles from surrounding neighborhoods. Many wore their Friday best.
It is not all about attending Mass. At Church City, there is a steady flow of life, death and everything in between.
This is where children are baptized, at least 20 of them a week. (During the early months of Covid, when in-person services were suspended, there was a backlog, so Father Rally and another priest eventually conducted 200 baptisms at once.)
This is where people get married. A big part of the priest’s job is making calls to the sick and conducting last rites and funeral services, complicated by the great distances that most people are from home.
All of it is wrapped in Catholic custom and liturgy, flavored by differences in nationality, language and culture. The church is both a comfort station and a crossroads.
“In my time as a priest, it is the most challenging thing,” Father Rally said.
Father Rally has been at Our Lady of the Rosary for a decade and was given the leadership role in 2017. When he led a parish in the Philippines, most everyone was from the same country, the same local community, and most congregants were women.
Here, he leads people from all over the world, though most of his congregation comes from India and the Philippines. A majority of them are men, many working in Qatar to support families back home.
On Friday, he walked around the grounds in his white robe. He noted the huddle of people at the prayer grotto, the line out the door of the adoration chapel. He wandered into the large shady spot where people mingled, getting free tea and bread. Inside a building marked “Our Lady of Arabia Hall,” he walked past a room marked “canteen” that smelled of curries and pastries.
Up some stairs, a hallway of doors was a real-life advent calendar; opening every one revealed a surprise. Here were a dozen people singing with arms raised. Here were 40 people listening intently to someone preach. Here was a 15-member band and a room full of singers. When their door opened, their music spilled into the hall.
Some people, especially those from the Philippines, rushed Father Rally with smiles, dipping their foreheads so that he could bless them with the back of his hand.
Most excited were the children. A group of 15 10-year-olds was celebrating the Christmas holidays in a small room when Father Rally appeared in the doorway. The children came to him, smiling, and got a quick blessing. Then they pulled him into the room to pose for a group photo.
“Merry Christmas!” the children said.
“Merry Christmas,” he replied.
Soon they were back outside, into the bright sun and out the exits toward the parking lot, re-entering the desert world that they call home. More people were flooding in to take their places.
About the same time, across the rest of Doha, loudspeakers called Muslims to prayer.