By SHABINA S. KHATRI
Al JAZEERA ENGLISH
March 15, 2008
DOHA – When Regina Setiadi moved from Indonesia to the Gulf last year, she left her Bible, crucifix and rosary behind.
“I never think that here in [the] Middle East there’s a church,” the 37-year-old Catholic, who now lives in Doha, Qatar, told Al Jazeera. “I thought we have to pray secretly at home.”
Or in schools. Or rented halls.
But now, after decades of worshipping in borrowed spaces, Qatar’s growing Christian community is celebrating – albeit quietly – the opening of the country’s first church since pre-Islamic times.
For Christians, the milestone is a validation of their growing community, comprised of expatriate workers mainly from South Asia and the Philippines.
For others, the church symbolises a step forward for rapidly developing Qatar, a tiny energy-rich country bidding for the 2016 Olympics.
“The church will send a positive message to the world,” Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, Qatar’s minister of energy and industry, told reporters on Friday during the unveiling of the complex.
But because some say the church flies in the face of Qatar’s Islamic values, religious leaders and government officials have been cautious about trumpeting the news too loudly.
“You have to respect the sensitivities of the country,” Reverend Bill Schwartz, an American priest fluent in Arabic, told Al Jazeera. “The people here have no cultural foundation to perceive Christianity. I don’t think it’s a negative thing – [the exposure] just hasn’t been there.
Large and unassuming
The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, to be consecrated on Saturday and open for Easter services on Sunday, will serve Doha’s Catholic community, which comprises 90 per cent of the city’s 150,000 and growing Christian expatriate population.
Construction of buildings for four other groups – Anglican, Coptic and the Greek Orthodox communities, as well as an inter-denominational centre where 11 Indian churches will converge under a single roof – is also under way, says Schwartz, who is involved in the Anglican Church of the Epiphany effort.
When completed, the complex will be one of the largest Christian structures in the Gulf, Naim Fouad Wakin, the project contractor, told Al Jazeera.
Though it sits amid mounds of uneven gravel and sand, Schwartz predicted rapid development within the next two years. Around 7,000 housing units are going up in the area, he said.
Because of the controversy surrounding the church’s opening, security patrols are to monitor the complex for months to come.
In keeping with government requests, the building’s exterior bears no crosses, steeple or church bells. The interior is similarly cautious, awash in soft blues and yellows, subtly airbrushed Biblical imagery – including a few crucifixes – and understated stained-glass windows.
“We have complied and intend to keep complying with every regulation set by the government,” Archbishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Arabia and the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the region, said on Friday.
But the idea of an official space for Christians, however unassuming, does not sit well with some Doha residents.
“I’m not OK with it,” Nabila Rahman, 37, told Al Jazeera after Friday prayers in a Doha mosque. “I feel that being a Muslim country, they should not allow a church to be here,” the Sri Lankan elementary school teacher added.
Khalifa Saleh, a 24-year-old Qatari, held the opposite perspective, commending the government for helping a religious minority feel more welcome in the country.
“This is a great step towards respect and tolerance. Many Christian expatriates have moved to Qatar in search for a better future. Their hard work and dedication to their work helps give Qatar a brighter future and I thank them for that.”
He said that only a minority of nationals, which account for less than a third of Qatar’s one million residents, are upset about the church.
“Those people have to be ignored. We ask for a mosque in England, so why can’t people ask for a church in Qatar? As long as the religion does not interfere with the state or not impose itself on other Muslims, I see no problem at all.”
Indeed, religious leaders have promised not to proselytise. And because it is illegal in Qatar for Muslims to convert to other religions, the church must handle any natives interested in Christianity with extra care, Schwartz said.
If Muslims were to come to him inquiring about his faith, he said, “I would be expected to turn them away.”
A heart’s delight
With the opening of Our Lady of the Rosary, Saudi Arabia remains the only Gulf state to ban churches and open worship by non-Muslims.
Those who oppose churches in the Gulf often quote the Prophet Muhammad as saying “no two religions will come together in the Arabian peninsula”.
But Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, former dean of the sharia (Islamic law) school at Qatar University and a vocal advocate of Doha’s new church, offered another interpretation.
“This does not mean that churches should be banned in Qatar because religious scholars believe it applies to the Hijaz – specifically Mecca and Medina,” Islam’s two holiest cities in Saudi Arabia, Ansari said in a local newspaper article.
“Let’s all welcome the presence of churches in Qatar … as a demonstration of Islamic tolerance and human brotherhood.”
In Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, churches were seen as one way to attract more foreign workers. Hinder said he expects Doha’s churches to do the same.
“When the spiritual needs of people are met, they will be more happy at work,” he said. “This new building is a delight for our hearts.”