Clive Handford, the Nicosia-based Anglican bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf, says construction will start in the Qatari capital of Doha in early 2006 on the 26-million Qatar riyal ($7 million) Church of the Epiphany, along with a conference centre and meeting rooms.
Plans for the Anglican church and three other Christian houses of worship have not been well publicised in Muslim-dominated Qatar, which is also the forward headquarters of the US military’s Central Command.
While some see the construction as a sign of increasing religious diversity throughout the world, Qatar‘s close-knit Muslim community may become angered if public approval is not sought, said Najeeb al-Nauimi, a prominent lawyer in Doha.
“People will be insulted,” al-Nauimi said. “They respect other religions. But to impose this on them is to say that you are no longer a Muslim state. That will hurt.”
Al-Nauimi warned that many Qataris were already upset with the country’s westward tilt, with Doha hosting the US Air Force’s giant al-Udeid airbase along with American commanders running the war in Iraq.
In March, Doha‘s expatriate community was the target of a bombing, when an Egyptian engineer detonated an explosives-packed car outside a theatre popular with Westerners. A British man was killed and 12 other people were injured, many of them foreigners.
Doha’s Western expatriates were
Christianity disappeared in most Gulf Arab states within a few centuries after Islam’s arrival in the 7th century. But Christian expatriates have moved to the region over the last 100 years, especially after the discovery of oil.
Qatar now counts some 70,000 Christians, including some 7000 Anglicans and 50,000 Roman Catholics – largely from the Philippines, according to the World Christian Database.
Qatar‘s Anglican community is its oldest, dating to 1916, the database says.
Some Gulf states have allowed churches to be built, including Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, where Western-friendly governments have sought to provide amenities to attract skilled expatriates.
In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, non-Muslim religious practice is banned.
Energy-rich Qatar has had no purpose-built church since pre-Islamic times, when a chain of churches and monasteries stretched along the western shore of the Gulf from the 4th century to the 7th century, Handford said.
First Christian council
A bishop from what is now Qatar is known to have attended the first ecumenical Christian council in the year 325 in Niceaea, in what is now Turkey, Handford said.
Many Qataris were “not enthusiastic” about the return of churches to the tiny country, Handford acknowledged.
“I suppose these days there is always a risk, no matter where you are”
Clive Handford, Anglican bishop in Cyprus and the Gulf
The congregation will take security precautions and will not be decorated overtly with Christian crosses, he said, although the walkways and grounds will have crosses and flower motifs resembling those used in early Christian churches.
The congregation, which has held services in an English-language school for decades, includes worshippers from Britain, North America, South Asia, Africa and East Asia.
“We’ve not yet experienced a backlash,” Handford said by telephone from London, where he attended a fundraiser for the Doha church hosted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the global Anglican community.
“I suppose these days there is always a risk, no matter where you are,” Handford said. “We’re not thinking of putting up razor wire or things like that.”
One of four
The Anglican archdeacon in Qatar, Ian Young, said the church was one of four planned in the energy-rich Gulf state.
Also in the works are church buildings serving Catholics, Egyptian Coptic Christians and a multi-denominational church serving Indian Christians, said Young, a 58-year-old Scot who has served as Doha‘s chief Anglican priest since 1991.
Qatar’s Amir Shaikh Hamad has
Todd Johnson, director of the US Centre for the Study of Global Christianity in Hamilton, Massachussetts, said: “It’s symbolic of globalisation, of pluralism, like the first mosque in the United States or Britain.
“There are fewer and fewer countries with one religious system.”
Land on Doha‘s southern outskirts earmarked for the church was donated by Qatar Amir Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
“It’s very much being done with the royal blessing,” Handford said. “There are lots of Christians living and working in Doha and the numbers are increasing all the time.”
For now, Christians in Qatar worship in schools and homes. Al-Nauimi warned that few Qataris would approve of donating public land so expatriate Christians could build a church.
Al-Nauimi, who as a child attended a Christian elementary school in Lebanon, said he had heard of no Qatari Christians.
“This is the affair of a foreign community that is here temporarily. Why should they get land for this?” he asked. “I don’t know what the reaction will be. There is a risk.”