Gulf State's First Church Opens

By Patrick Goodenough | March 17, 2008 | 8:18pm EDT

( - The first church permitted in Qatar held its first Mass on Sunday without incident, following threats by Islamists unhappy about a Christian place of worship in the capital of the Gulf state.

Under tight security, thousands of Christians attended the service at the Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church in Doha. Local media described the meeting as lengthy and joyful.

Last week several western embassies warned citizens that the church could be targeted, following threats of violence from Islamists.

The U.S. Embassy added the new church to a list of examples of potential targets which it said could be attacked by extremists. The Australian Embassy in the United Arab Emirates, which deals with Qatar, noted that a terrorist Web site had made reference to the new church complex.

Most of the approximately 150,000 predominantly Catholic Christians in Qatar, a tiny country with a population of less than one million, are foreigners from countries including the Philippines and India.

The opening of Qatar's first church makes neighboring Saudi Arabia the last of the Gulf States where no churches are allowed.

Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar follows the strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, but Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who has been in power since he seized control in a 1995 palace coup, donated the land for the church and several others of other denominations, yet to be built.

Construction of the church, which was designed to display no visible symbols showing it to be a Christian place of worship, was not without controversy.

A former justice minister, Najib al-Nuaimi, said earlier the country should hold a referendum to ensure Qataris accepted the construction of churches in their Muslim state.

Local newspapers reporting on the debate quoted a former head of the faculty of Islamic law at the University of Qatar as speaking in favor of the church, saying places of worship for other religions was a human right guaranteed by Islam.

Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, who opened the church at a simple function late last week, said the message that Qatar was sending to the world by granting permission for the church was that people should be merciful to others and love their fellow human beings.

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