The Arab emirate of Qatar witnesses the building of the first church since the coming of Islam. Conservative Muslims are furious, but the reform-minded emir of Qatar thinks it is time to show that Islam is a tolerant religion.A miniscule step in the right direction, but one that gives an indication of how long the journey will be.
"If all goes well, we will celebrate Easter in our new church", says father Yashun of the almost completed church of the Virgin in the Qatari capital Doha. The Catholic church, which will open next month, is the first church to be built in Qatar since the coming of Islam 14 centuries ago.
Like other countries in the Arabian peninsula, Qatar does not have an indigenous non-Muslim minority, but among the guest-workers that have come there in the past decades are many Christians. The new church will serve no less than a hundred thousand Catholics residing in the tiny emirate, most of whom are from the Philippines, India and Lebanon. A Protestant church is also under construction.
"A few years ago, opening a church in Qatar was sort of impossible", the Italian ambassador in Doha, Ignatio Di Pashi, recently told a local Qatari newspaper. "But Qatar has changed since the coming of the new emir."
Prince Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is a reform-minded man who, when he came to power in 1995, decided it was time to show the tolerant face of Islam and to accommodate the new Christian minority in his country.
Since 2001, a yearly 'Conference of the 3 Religions" is held in Qatar during which representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam engage in dialogue. Dialogue between Muslims and Christians is rather common in the Arab world, but a religious dialogue including Jews is revolutionary.
And in 2005, the emir announced that churches would be built for the Christians in Qatar, who until today have to conduct their religious services in private homes or schools.
The building of the church has shocked conservative Muslims of Qatar and has led to heated debates in the local media. Most Qatari Muslims belong to the Wahhabi sect, one of the most conservative currents in Islam and the state-doctrine in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
Opponents of the church quote a Tradition attributed to the prophet Mohammed which reads: "There shall be no two religions in the Arabian peninsula." Alluding to this Tradition, articles have appeared in the local press bearing titles such as "No cross shall be raised under the sky of Qatar and no church-bell shall ring!"
But advocates of the church, too, support their views with religious arguments. One of them is Dr Abdelhamid al-Ansari, former dean of the Qatari shari'a college. "Establishing places of worship for different religions", he writes in one of his articles in favour of the building of churches in his country, "is a basic right guaranteed to all human beings by the Koran and the Tradition of the prophet." Dr Ansari also recognizes the prophetic Tradition quoted by his opponents, but says it only applies to the Hijaz, the province of the two holy cities of Islam Macca and Medina.
Another Qatari shaykh, Ali al-Qardaghi, went even further by assuring a French reporter that Islam does not prohibit the building of churches "nor any other places of worship." His statement is significant because traditional Islam indeed explicitly grants all kinds of rights to Christians and Jews - the so-called 'people of the Book' - but has great difficulty in recognizing the beliefs of Hindus and Buddhists as 'religious.' And after all a large section of the guest workers in Qatar are not Christians but Hindus from India.
The church, which costs 18 million dollars, will contain a conference hall, a library, accommodation for clerics and a café. But it will have no cross on the outside and the catholic cardinal heading it had to promise the authorities that he will not engage in missionary activities.
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