By Cynthia Flores/Asianjournal.com
THE Muslim state of Qatar used to ban churches of other religions. Thus, Christians of different denominations 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.
Last Sunday, March 14, the country’s first Catholic church opened with a Filipino, Father Tom Veneracion serving as parish priest. Careful not to offend the religious sensitivities of the majority Muslim population, St. Mary’s church has no cross, no bell and no steeple.
“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 said.
Five thousand Catholic faithful, many of them excited Filipinos, came to celebrate the historic consecration. The sweeping 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, flew in to attend its inauguration along with officials from the Qatari Government.
The call for a Catholic church has intensified through the past two decades as waves of migrant workers from the Philippines and other parts of Asia arrived to work in the Gulf. The Filipinos, most of whom are Catholics, used to have underground mass and services.
Built with the donations of the Catholic communities living in Qatar and across the Gulf, the $15 million complex comprises a church with a capacity of 2,700 seats, staff houses, meeting halls and other multipurpose buildings. It is located in Mesaieer on the outskirts of Doha on a land which the Qatari leaders leased out at a nominal fee. The Catholic church will be part of a larger complex, including five more churches of other Christian denominations. Work has already started on the other sites for the Anglican, the Coptic and the Greek Orthodox communities, and an Inter-denomination Christian Church Centre, where 11 Indian churches will converge under a single roof.
The completion of the church was right on schedule as they wanted to be able to hold an Easter service on March 23. But it did not open without any controversy. Critics in the Wahhabi Muslim country have branded it an offence, with one prominent politician calling for a national referendum to determine its fate.
Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, the former dean of the Islamic law school at Qatar University, said that having “places of worship for various religions is a fundamental human right guaranteed by Islam”.
An Egyptian Imam at the Islamic Centre Al Fanar disagreed. “Churches can create confusion among Muslims. Christians were tolerated and [they] prayed even before, there was no reason to ask for a church.” Lawyer and former justice minister Najeeb Al Nuaimi also objected to building churches in Qatar on “legal and social” grounds.
“The cross should not be raised in the sky of Qatar, nor should bells toll in Doha,” wrote columnist Lahdan Bin Eisa Al Muhanadi in the Doha daily Al Arab.
Father Tom told reporters that he was perplexed 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.”