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For the first time, Christians in Qatar worship in church

The move is seen as part of an effort to modernize the emirate and demonstrate traditional Islam's tolerance.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 2009

Open: Our Lady of the Rosary is Qatar's first church since Islam took root in the 7th century.

Courtesy of Our Lady of the Rosary Church

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DOHA, Qatar

When the Rev. Tomasito Veneracion arrived in this Muslim nation seven years ago, his Roman Catholic parishioners prayed in small groups scattered in apartments, schools, and one tiny makeshift chapel. At Easter, Indian Catholics gathered in one place, Filipinos in another, Arabs in yet another.

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But with last year's opening of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, his congregants for the first time had a recognized, central place to worship. On Christmas Eve, 15,000 attended a midnight mass, with those who couldn't cram into the 2,700-seat church watching on video screens outside.

"When I first came here, the church was not recognized. But now we are enjoying this gift," Father Veneracion says. "It's a tremendous feeling of relief that we can breathe, worship, and pray in a place without fear and without disturbance."

The decision to permit church building is widely seen as part of an effort by Qatar's leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to modernize the tiny emirate, made wealthy by its natural-gas reserves, and demonstrate traditional Islam's flexibility and tolerance.

"It's showing the world they are open to new ideas, and I guess it's part of growing up as a nation," said Veneracion.

Our Lady of the Rosary will soon be joined by several churches under construction in what is informally known as "Church City," a 99-acre site leased to Christian denominations by the Qatar government.

Qatar's Christians, estimated at 70,000 to 80,000, are almost entirely expatriate workers, principally from India and the Philippines.

The move gave Qatar its first church since Islam took root here in the 7th century. It also brought Qatar into line with most of its Gulf neighbors, which have all had at least one church for decades. The one exception is Saudi Arabia, whose inflexible strain of Islam still bans worship of another faith.

Diplomats in Riyadh say, however, that a more relaxed atmosphere has emerged in recent years. Private services in homes are disrupted far less often, and fewer Christians are arrested, diplomats report. Customs agents no longer confiscate Bibles and crucifixes from arriving foreigners.

Though Qatar is not a pioneer in permitting an open Christian presence in the Gulf, it is bucking a massive ultraconservative drift in contemporary Islam around the world that rejects cooperation with other faiths. Al Qaeda spokesmen have berated Qatar for authorizing church construction.

Qatar's 200,000 citizens, who enjoyed the world's highest per capita income as of 2007, adhere to the same Islamic legal tradition as Saudi Arabians. But they differ in practice, being far more relaxed about publicly enforcing a strict social and moral code.

Most Qataris "are happy with what we're doing because they are devout Muslims and they want their Christian employees to be able to pray," said the Rev. Canon Bill Schwartz, Anglican rector of Doha's Church of the Epiphany.