Friday, March 14, 2008

Catholic Church in Qatar

~from AP via Yahoo News

This tiny, wealthy Arab Gulf country is opening its first Roman Catholic church, ending decades of clandestine worship for tens of thousands of foreign workers.

The consecration of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, planned for Saturday, appears to be a sign of Qatar's efforts to open up to the West as it seeks a bid for the Olympic Games in 2016.

Qatar's ruler has also approved five churches for other Christian denominations, all under construction next to the Catholic one.

Attracted by a booming oil economy, expatriate workers make up at least 70 percent of Qatar's population of about 1 million.

Some 150,000 Christians of all denominations live here, over 90 percent of them Catholic expatriate workers from the Philippines and other Asian nations, Christian community representatives said.

Qatar follows the rigorous Wahhabi teachings of Sunni Islam, and like neighboring Saudi Arabia had not previously authorized Christians to practice their faith openly.

But a priest had operated in Qatar since the 1960s without official approval, said Archbishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Arabia and the top Roman Catholic cleric in the region.

"Catholics in Doha finally have their home where they can gather in freedom and security," Hinder said by telephone from his base in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, personally donated the land to build the $15 million church with 2,700 seats in the outskirts of the capital, Doha, church officials said.

Out of respect for local sensitivities, the church will not feature any religious symbols — neither a cross or a bell tower — that would identify the building as a place of Christian worship.

"The opening of the church is an important event for the entire community," said Tomasito Veneracion, the priest for the new parish. "We are grateful to the Qatari authorities for having allowed its construction."

Qatar's decision to allow open churches leaves Saudi Arabia as the only country in the region that doesn't allow the building of churches for any Christian denomination, or any open worship.

U.S. government officials and private religious officials have often been sharply critical of Saudi Arabia's lack of religious freedom. Workers from the Philippines, for example, have in the past been punished or deported if caught practicing the Christian faith in worship services.

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