First Catholic Church Opens in Qatar, Sparking Fear of Backlash Against Christians

Qatar's first Christian church has no cross, no bell and no steeple.

And when 5,000 faithful flock to Our Lady of the Rosary to celebrate its historic consecration this weekend, they pray no one will notice.

Father Tom Veneracion, the parish priest, is worried about a backlash.

"The idea is to be discreet because we don't want to inflame any sensitivities," he says. "There isn't even a signboard outside the church. No signs at all."

Qatar's fledgling Catholic community considers its sprawling $15 million saucer-shaped facility a victory. A 15-minute drive into barren desert, it has been built with the blessing of the nation's emir.

But some people in this Muslim country have branded it an offense; one prominent politician has called for a national referendum to determine its fate.

And as the church lookd forward to its first Easter service, the controversy is getting considerable attention among this gas-rich country's 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 Doha's Al-Arab newspaper.

But Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, the former dean of the Islamic law school at Qatar University, disagrees. He wrote that having "places of worship for various religions is a fundamental human right guaranteed by Islam."

Sitting in his sparse office in the portable building that has served as a makeshift chapel for his congregation for the last six years, Veneracion said he was bewildered by the dispute.

"It is confusing to us," said the priest, a soft-spoken man from the Philippines who seemed genuinely caught off guard by the controversy.

"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 to build a Catholic church has grown as waves of migrant workers from South Asia and the Philippines arrived in the Gulf, answering the call for cheap labor to fuel the region's runaway economy.

But the Christian immigrants have sometimes collided with the native Qatari population, which practices Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam.

Native Qataris account for only 200,000 of the country's population of 900,000.

The Vatican estimates there are 100,000 practicing Catholics in Qatar. They attended underground services until seven years ago, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the country's current ruler, granted permission to five denominations to open churches.

The Sheikh, who seized control from his father in a 1995 palace coup, is a staunch U.S. ally, and the move is part of a broader push to promote Qatar as an open and tolerant society, in order to attract tourism and business.

Veneracion says that the church, when it's completed, will serve as a place for "prayer and inter-faith dialogue." The grounds boast a catechism building and conference center. A wedding party has already booked a ceremony and reception in May.

When Our Lady of the Rosary opens its doors, it will make Saudi Arabia the only Gulf state that still bans churches.

But it remains unclear if Qataris will accept the church, or whether a backlash will force it to close its doors.

Rashed al-Subaie, a Qatari engineer, wrote in a letter to the Al-Watan newspaper that Christians should practice their faith only "in line with public morals without being given licenses to set up places of worship."

Christians should "worship their God in their homes," he wrote.

But Qatar's Catholic faithful remain resolute. A few days ago, Lourdes Carvallo and her elderly mother attended what they prayed would be one of their last morning services in the makeshift chapel.

The 38-year-old housewife from Goa, India, was born in Qatar and grew up attending underground mass in neighbors' homes.

She said: "We have been waiting for this for such a long time and we are feeling very hopeful, because finally we will have a proper place of worship."