On February 22nd of this year, I was in Doha, Qatar, riding in a taxi with the former U.S. Ambassador to Qatar, Patrick N. Theros – after having attended the Consecration of the Saint Isaac and Saint George Church – when I first learned of the astonishing story of how, 23 years ago, the Ambassador brought a Christian church to Qatar – a country where there had not been a Christian church since pre-Islamic times hundreds of years ago.
For context, Qatar is a small Muslim peninsular country that juts into the Persian Gulf between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates. It boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world. And, in 2022, Qatar will be hosting the World Cup tournament for soccer. The country hosts a very large expatriate worker population, well in excess of two million, who come from virtually every country, ethnic group, and religion on the face of the Earth.
The tale of the Ambassador’s trailblazing effort begins with a simple wish to attend Easter Holy Week services while far from home – but this new chapter in Qatar’s history eventually led to the building of an entire Christian religious complex where thousands of Christians in Qatar worship today.
Ambassador Theros arrived to take up his post as U.S. Ambassador to Qatar in late November 1995. At the time Qatar still banned all formal non-Muslim religious institutions although it did not persecute foreigners practicing their faith privately. Accordingly, in April 1996, as Easter approached, Ambassador Theros requested permission from the Department of State to depart Qatar for a week to another regional country – but the Department refused permission citing the need for him to remain at his post.
However, it had already become apparent to Ambassador Theros that, unlike neighboring Saudi Arabia, the Qatari authorities tolerated unofficial Christian (and presumably other) religious activities. Therefore, Ambassador Theros decided to approach the problem directly and asked the Qatari Foreign Minister if he could bring an Orthodox priest from outside Qatar to conduct services during Holy Week.
The Foreign Minister graciously assented without hesitation. He did ask, however, from where the priest would come. Ambassador Theros noted he had contacts with two Orthodox Patriarchates, Jerusalem and Antioch (the latter located in Damascus). The Foreign Minister asked that the priest come from Jerusalem because they worried about subversion from the Baath regime in Syria.
Ambassador Theros contacted the then-Patriarch of Jerusalem, Diodoros, and asked if he could send a priest. Patriarch Diodoros assented immediately and a few days later notified the Ambassador that he would send then Archimandrite Theophilos, now Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem, who had just left the Church in Cana in Galilee.
Diodoros noted that Archimandrite Theophilos spoke good English and Arabic and would be well suited for the mission. Diodoros said that Theophilos could also conduct other services (e.g., house blessings, baptisms, memorials, etc.) during his stay in Qatar if requested by Orthodox communicants. Patriarch Diodoros added that he would send thank-you letters accompanied by gifts to His Highness the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, and other senior officials of the Government of Qatar with Archimandrite Theophilos.
The Ambassador notified other Eastern Orthodox Christians in Doha that a priest would be coming for Easter and invited them to the Ambassador’s Residence to attend Holy Week services. Orthodox businessmen offered to help with logistics and administrative arrangements. One businessman built a large tent in the Ambassador’s Residence garden to accommodate the services and others offered accommodations and cars and drivers. Almost one hundred households requested some other blessing or service.
Archimandrite Theophilos arrived in Doha on Monday of Holy Week. The Ambassador and the Patriarch had agreed that he would dress in European clothes for his trip and for his visits to the senior authorities. Holy Week services would start on Holy Wednesday and continue through Easter Sunday. The Archimandrite would stay several days more to accommodate the many requests for services in various households.
Ambassador Theros had requested an audience with His Highness the Emir and meetings with the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister to introduce Archimandrite Theophilos. The Prime Minister met with Theophilos, received and read the letter and the gift, and welcomed him to Qatar. The Prime Minister welcomed Archimandrite Theophilos, asked questions about Jerusalem and the Holy Land, and the two exchanged gifts.
The next day the Ambassador and the Archimandrite called on His Highness the Emir of Qatar. Again, the Ambassador had decided that Theophilos should wear European clothes rather than his vestments. His Highness greeted the two warmly and said that next time the Archimandrite should come in his vestments. They then engaged in a very long conversation on theological matters with the Emir explaining specifically how Qataris understood the teachings of Islam. Protocol had warned them the meeting would last only 20 minutes; but, the Emir kept them for almost two hours.
Theophilos, soon joined by a second priest, then made repeated visits to Qatar, conducting services and attending to the spiritual needs of Orthodox families. Each time he took pains to visit government officials as well.
In 1999, shortly after his retirement from the Foreign Service, Ambassador Theros arranged an official visit by His Beatitude Diodoros, the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The Emir received him and turned it into the functional equivalent of a State Visit. He hosted an official lunch, ensured that it appeared in all the newspapers, and offered the Patriarch the opportunity to conduct services at the Doha Sheraton Hotel, at that time Qatar’s only 5-star hotel.
The Patriarch brought numerous gifts. The most important was an original letter signed in the 1600’s by a Turkish Sultan reaffirming the validity of the Treaty of Omar. The Treaty of Omar is a document issued by Omar Ibn al-Khattab, the third of the four ‘Rashidun’ or Rightly Guided Caliphs to the then Patriarch of Jerusalem in 634. This document formally established Christianity’s rights in the Muslim world. It still provides the legal basis for the establishment of Christian churches anywhere in the Dar al-Islam.
The connection Ambassador Theros forged between the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the State of Qatar laid the foundation, 23 years ago, for the flourishing Christian community in Qatar today. In 2005, his Highness the Emir of Qatar authorized the leasing of a plot of land in Doha’s Mesaieer district as the site for the country’s first modern Christian churches.
Three years later, the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary was built and consecrated. In time, an entire Christian religious complex emerged, which today includes Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Anglican, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Lebanese Maronite, Filipino Evangelical, Indian Christian, and various other Protestant churches. Its thousands of congregants hail from India, the Philippines, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe. Today, Qatar continues promote acceptance of all faiths. It sponsors the Doha International Center for Interfaith Dialogue, inaugurated in 2007, which aims to promote a culture of peaceful coexistence and acceptance of others and beginning in 2005 hosts an annual Conference on Interfaith Dialogue.
Even Prince Charles of the United Kingdom visited the Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Anglican Church of the Epiphany, and the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Isaac and St. George during his visit to Qatar in 2014. The Church is named partly for St. Isaac known as “the Syrian” because he wrote in Syriac (Aramaic). St. Isaac was born in Qatar in the 7th century and is today venerated as one of the most important of the early Fathers of the Church.
Through diplomacy, verve, and a humble human wish to worship, Ambassador Theros ushered in a new chapter in Qatar’s history, building on the welcoming spirit that animates the people of Qatar and its leadership combined with deep respect for the faith of others. The Ambassador’s efforts planted a seed, which has born a fruit that tens of thousands of expatriate Christians in Qatar, hailing from all corners of the world, now enjoy – the solace of a house of worship while far from home.
The grandson of a Greek Orthodox priest and an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Order of Saint Andrew, Ambassador Theros paved the way for the return of Christian churches to Qatar by organizing the first government-approved Christian service in modern times. This was not the first time Ambassador Theros had taken such an initiative to extend freedom of worship to countries where he served. While serving as Charge’ d’affaires at the American Embassy in Abdu Dhabi, UAE in 1982, he had persuaded the UAE Government to allow an Eastern Orthodox Church to open up for the first time in that country as well.
Having had the honor of knowing the Ambassador for over 20 years – and being certain that the Ambassador is one of the most honorable and humble people I have ever had the pleasure of calling a friend and colleague – I wanted to ensure that his remarkable efforts for re-establishing the presence of Christianity in Qatar did not go unrecognized.
Christopher Yeanos is the CEO of The Pentathlon Capital Group, LLC, an international management consultancy group.