Scot to lead Christian church to be built in Muslim stronghold

Doha, Qatar - A SCOTTISH archdeacon is to run the first Christian church to be built in the conservative Muslim state of Qatar since the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.

The Ven Ian Young, 58, has been the chief Anglican priest in the capital, Doha, since 1991. Work on the £4 million Church of the Epiphany, which will not have a spire or free-standing cross, will begin next year on land donated by the reform-minded Emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. A quarter of the cost has been raised by the Anglican community in Qatar, with the rest to be met by fundraising abroad.

Speaking yesterday, Dr Young, who is from Perth, said: "It will be a home for people who are away from home. As well as a place for worship, it will be a place where people can meet."

The Most Rev Clive Handford, the Anglican Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf, said: "We are guests in a Muslim country and we wish to be sensitive to our hosts ... but once you're inside the gates, it will be quite obvious that you are in a Christian centre."

The walkways and grounds of the church will have crosses and flower motifs resembling those used in early Christian churches. As well as providing an official place of worship for Qatar's Anglican community, estimated to be 7,000-10,000 people, Bishop Handford said he hoped the "centre can be a base for ongoing Muslim-Christian dialogue".

Christianity disappeared from most Gulf Arab states within a few centuries of Islam's arrival, but Christians have migrated to the region during the past 100 years, particularly since the discovery of oil.

Dr Young said: "I've got 28 nationalities from every continent. From Asia we've got Filipino, Indian, Sri Lankan, Indonesian, Pakistanis. Then there are Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealand, South African, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria. Our church is like a microcosm of the Anglican communion."

Some Gulf states have allowed churches to be built, including Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, where western-friendly governments have sought to provide amenities to attract skilled workers. But in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, non-Muslim religious practice is banned.

"Qatar has changed from being a remote, secluded, conservative country to one that's much more open to the world," said Gerald Butt, the editor of the authoritative Middle East Economic Survey.

Bishop Handford accepts that some Qataris might not be happy. "But in the conservative Muslim world you'd expect it," he said. "You'd get the same in the conservative Christian world where mosques are being built." The congregation will take security precautions, but no "dramatic" measures are planned. "We are confident in the local security," he said.

Qatar, home to huge gas reserves and enjoying an economic boom, is politically quiet and prides itself on its security: with a population of fewer than one million, centred mainly in Doha, it is confident it can keep an eye on everybody. An attack last March when an Egyptian engineer detonated an explosives-packed car outside a theatre popular with westerners, killing a British man and injuring 12 other people, was viewed as a aberration. It was Qatar's only known suicide bombing.

Also in the works are church buildings to serve Catholics, Egyptian Coptic Christians and a multi-denominational church serving Indian Christians.

Qatar is home to some 70,000 Christian expatriates, most of them Roman Catholics, although the Anglican community is thought be the emirate's oldest, dating from 1916.