A planned church for 2006 will be Qatar’s first since Islam’s arrival in the 7th century.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – Qatar may be best known as the home of Al-Jazeera television, but an Anglican congregation now plans to build the country’s first Christian church since Islam’s arrival in the 7th century – a step that risks angering local Muslims.

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 $7 million Church of the Epiphany, along with a conference center and meeting rooms.

Plans for the Anglican church and three other Christian houses of worship have not been well publicized in Muslim-dominated Qatar, which also is the forward headquarters of the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 the country’s only known suicide bombing, when an Egyptian engineer detonated an explosives-packed car outside a theater popular with Westerners. A British man was killed and 12 other people were injured, many of them foreigners.

Christianity disappeared in most Gulf Arab states within a few centuries after Islam’s arrival in the 7th century. But Christian expatriates have migrated to the region over the last hundred years, especially after the discovery of oil.

Qatar now counts some 70,000 Christians, including some 7,000 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.

“It’s symbolic of globalization, of pluralism, like the first mosque in the United States or Britain,” said Todd Johnson, director Center for the Study of Global Christianity in Hamilton, Mass. “There are fewer and fewer countries with one religious system.”

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 lure skilled expatriates.

In neighboring 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 and to the 7th century, Handford said.

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, who follow a conservative brand of Islam, were “not enthusiastic” about the return of churches to the tiny country, Handford acknowledged.

The congregation will take security precautions and will not be decorated overtly with Christian crosses, he said, although the walkways and grounds will be 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 global Anglican Communion.

“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.”

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.

The development illustrates the blurring of the borders between the world’s religions, with even the Islamic heartland hosting diverse worshippers.

Land on Doha’s southern outskirts earmarked for the church was donated by Qatar’s emir, Sheik 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.”

On the Net:

Anglican Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf: http://www.stchcathedral.org.bh/diocese/bishop.htm

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