Qatar opens doors to first church in 14 centuries

The first Christian church in the conservative Muslim state of Qatar since the arrival of Islam in the 7th century is to be built on land donated by the reform-minded Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

The $7 million development of the Church of the Epiphany, which will not have a spire or freestanding cross, will begin early next year.

Clive Handford, the Nicosia-based Anglican Bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf, says: "We are there as guests in a Muslim country and we wish to be sensitive to our hosts ... but once you're inside the gates it will be quite obvious that you are in a Christian center."

The walkways and grounds of the church, in Qatar's capital, Doha, will have crosses and flower motifs resembling those used in early Christian churches. "We hope that the center can be a base for ongoing Muslim-Christian dialogue," Bishop Handford told The Monitor.

Qatar's Anglican community, which has held services in an English-language school in Doha for decades, is estimated to number between 7,000 and 10,000 people. "Our church is like a microcosm of the Anglican community," says Ian Young, who has been the chief Anglican priest in Doha since 1991. "I've got 28 nationalities from every continent."

Dr. Young, who is from Perth in Scotland, will run the new church. "It will be a home for people who are away from home," he says. "As well as a place of worship, it will be a place where people can meet."

The complex will include conference facilities, temporary living accommodations, a library, and a cafe. Also in the works, with land again provided by the Emir, are church buildings to serve Catholics - who comprise the majority of Qatar's 70,000 Christian expatriates - Egyptian Coptic Christians and Indian Christians.

Missionaries brought Christianity to the Gulf in the second half of the 5th century but it disappeared from most Gulf Arab states within a few centuries of the arrival of Islam. Over the past 100 years, particularly since the discovery of oil, Christian expatriates have migrated to the region which is currently enjoying an economic boom that is attracting more foreign workers.

Bishop Handford accepts that some Qataris might not be happy. "You'd get the same in the conservative Christian world where mosques are built," Handford says. "We haven't experienced any problems or difficulties with local people," he adds.

In particular, the emir, who came to power in 1995, has been very supportive. "Were it not for his agreement, and approval, and generosity, we wouldn't be having a church," says Bishop Handford.

Gerald Butt, editor of Middle East Economic Survey, an authoritative Cyprus-based newsletter, says allowing the church is unlikely to prove controversial there. "Already Qatar has changed from being a remote, secluded, conservative country to one that's much more open to the world," he says.

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