Qatar: Christians worship inside country's first church

Doha, 31 March (AKI) - (by Ahmad Rafat) - Qatar's first church, Our Lady of the Rosary, opened its doors only two weeks ago.

After years of delicate negotiations, the Vatican was finally granted permission to construct the first church in Qatar. Now similar negotiations are underway in Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where churches are not allowed.

On Sunday, the faithful stood at the gates of Our Lady of the Rosary, waiting to enter the church and attend mass, celebrated by the Filipino priest, Don Tomasito Veneracion.

To avoid upsetting the local people or attracting the attention of Islamic extremists, the church has neither a bell tower nor an external cross.

"We have finally emerged from a semi-clandestine religion," said Miguel, a 30-year old Filipino who works in one of the big hotels constructed in recent years in Doha.

There are an estimated 150,000 Christians out of a population of 750,000 in Qatar. The Christians are almost all foreigners from around 70 countries but the majority are from the Philippines, India and Nigeria.

Before entering the church, the faithful must pass through a metal detector, and the police are present at the building to maintain security.

 "Until today we had to return to the Philippines or travel to Dubai or Abu Dhabi to fulfill our spiritual needs," said Corazon, Miguel's wife.

Miguel and Corazon, who have lived in Qatar for ten years, had to go to to Dubai to baptise their two children.

"Our son can take his first communion in Doha and we can celebrate it without being afraid of being expelled," said Corazon.

Discussions about the new church began in 2002, when the emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamed bin Khalifa al Thani established diplomatic ties with the Vatican. After the Qatari leader had a meeting with Pope John Paul II, the government in Doha made land available for a church to be constructed.

"More important than the Vatican, there was pressure from Washington to convince the emir that opening a church would reinforce the image of the country on an international level," said Mike an American engineer who works in the energy sector in Qatar.

Qater's emir, who succeeded his father in 1995, is taking important steps in many fields, not just economic, to develop the country. The opening of the church in Doha is a tangible sign of how this tiny emirate has changed even if certain taboos remain banning every form of proselytism and the conversion of Muslims to Christianity.

These are the restrictions that discourage Father Veneracion to speak to journalists.

Father Veneracion did not want to speak about his mission, and only said that he's "happy to serve such a big community that finally has the opportunity to regularly receive the sacraments".

Veneracion would not comment on recent news about the possiblity of a future visit by Pope Benedict XVI to Doha.

"It would be marvellous," he said without any additional comment.

The possibility of a papal visit to the Persian Gulf was recently raised by Qatar's powerful oil minister, Abdullah al Attyah. But there has been no confirmation of the visit by others close the emir because there is a concern that this could provoke a violent reaction from Islamic extremists.


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