Qatar hosts its first Christian church

Doha, Qatar - The first Christian church in Qatar has no cross, no bell and no steeple. And when five thousand faithful descend on Our Lady of the Rosary this morning to celebrate its historic consecration they pray that no one will notice. “The idea is to be discreet because we don’t want to inflame any sensitivities. There isn’t even a signboard outside the church,” Father Tom Veneracion, the parish priest, said.

For Qatar’s fledgeling Roman Catholic community, the sweeping £7.5 million saucer-shaped building, a 15-minute drive into the desert, is considered a victory, built with the blessing of the current Emir. Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Vatican envoy, is flying in to attend its inauguration along with officials from the Qatari Government.

Critics in the Wahhabi Muslim country have branded it an offence, with one prominent politician calling for a national referendum to determine its fate.

As construction of the church nears completion before its first Easter service, the debate intensifies in the pages of the gas-rich contry’s conservative press. “The cross should not be raised in the sky of Qatar, nor should bells toll in Doha,” wrote Lahdan bin Issa al-Muhanada, a leading columnist in Al-Arab newspaper.

Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, the former dean of the Islamic law school at Qatar University, countered in a competing paper, saying that having “places of worship for various religions is a fundamental human right guaranteed by Islam”.

Sitting in innocuous prefabricated offices where he has ministered to his congregation for the past six years, Father Veneracion, a softly spoken Filipino, told The Times that he was flummoxed by the dispute. “We tried to be discreet and I think there’s an atmosphere generally in the Gulf that’s fairly anti- Christian, but that’s mainly to do with what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has nothing to do with us at all.”

In Doha, the call for a Catholic church has intensified as waves of migrant workers from Christian parts of South Asia and the Philippines arrived in the Gulf, answering the call for cheap labour. In Qatar, natives account for only 200,000 of its 900,000 population.

The Vatican estimates that there are about 100,000 practising Catholics in Qatar, who had to attend underground services until seven years ago, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler, granted permission to five denominations to open churches.

When Our Lady of the Rosary opens its doors today, Saudi Arabia will remain the only Gulf state still to ban churches.