After 7 years, authorities approved the project propelled by a Filipino expat livig in the country. There are about 1,200 evangelical believers in Qatar. SOURCES Doha News, Arabian Bussiness AUTHOR Evangelical Focus DOHA 06 JULY 2015 13:43 h GMT+1 Flag in Qatar. / Juandec (Flickr, CC) Evangelicals living in the Emirate of Qatar will see how an evangelical church building is constructed in the countruy for the first time. The chairman of the Evangelical Churches Alliance in Qatar (ECAQ), Beda Robles, an expat from the Philippines, has worked for seven years to get the permission to build an approved church building. The moment finally arrived at the end of June when a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the wait was over. “He said ‘I have good news,’ and I just knew. All our years of praying and hope had come to fruition,” Robles told Doha News agency. The new place of worship for evangelicals will be several kilometers outside of central Doha in Mesaimeer’s religious complex, next to the Catholic Church Of Our Lady Of Rosary. The ECAQ secured a lease contract for the land in 2013, but had to wait for official government approval before it could start raising money for the QR100 million (US$27.47 million) church. The evangelical organisation has approximately 1,200 members, almost all of them foreigners. Primarily from the Phillipines, Nigeria, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Malaysia. The 28-year-old organization has historically held worship sessions in villas and other private homes. In the years leading to this moment, “the government has been very supportive in providing us permissions to hold worship sessions, meetings and other celebrations like our Family Days over the years”, the ECAQ said. Former Philippines ambassador to Qatar, Crescente Relacion, also played an crucial role in pushing the plans forward, Robles added. TIME TO START BUILDING AND HIRING STAFF The church will operate as a commercial organisation and will seek to raise the funding required to build the church. Now that the organisation has its registration, it can start filing work visa applications to hire administrative staff.
“We have a small amount collected now, and we’re hoping to get a start on the ground-breaking with that. As for the other money, we’re going to have huge fundraising efforts to bring in donations, and we’re also asking help from other churches in Doha, in the region, and around the world,” he said. STILL ILLEGAL TO CONVERT TO CHRISTIANITY Converting to another religion from Islam is still considered apostasy in Qatar, and is technically a capital offense. Nevertheless, since the country gained independence in 1971, there has been no recorded execution or other punishment for such an act. According to the criminal code, individuals caught proselytising on behalf of an organization, society, or foundation, for any religion other than Islam, may be sentenced to a prison term of up to 10 years. OTHER CHRISTIAN DENOMINATIONS PRESENT SINCE 2008 Qatar’s first Christian church since pre-Islamic times opened in 2008. According a US State Department report, the country has granted legal status to the Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Lebanese Maronite, Filipino Evangelical and Indian Christian churches. All of them are formed almost exclusively by migrants working in the country.
Controversial Christian centre receives a cautious welcome.
When Regina Setiadi moved from Indonesia to the Gulf last year, she left her Bible, crucifix and rosary behind.
"I never think that here in [the] Middle East there's a church," the 37-year-old Catholic, who now lives in Doha, Qatar, told Al Jazeera. "I thought we have to pray secretly at home."
Or in schools. Or rented halls.
But now, after decades of worshipping in borrowed spaces, Qatar's growing Christian community is celebrating - albeit quietly - the opening of the country's first church since pre-Islamic times.
For Christians, the milestone is a validation of their growing community, comprised of expatriate workers mainly from South Asia and the Philippines.
For others, the church symbolises a step forward for rapidly developing Qatar, a tiny energy-rich country bidding for the 2016 Olympics.
"The church will send a positive message to the world," Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah, Qatar's minister of energy and industry, told reporters on Friday during the unveiling of the complex.
But because some say the church flies in the face of Qatar's Islamic values, religious leaders and government officials have been cautious about trumpeting the news too loudly.
"You have to respect the sensitivities of the country," Reverend Bill Schwartz, an American priest fluent in Arabic, told Al Jazeera. "The people here have no cultural foundation to perceive Christianity. I don't think it's a negative thing – [the exposure] just hasn't been there.
Large and unassuming
The Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, to be consecrated on Saturday and open for Easter services on Sunday, will serve Doha's Catholic community, which comprises 90 per cent of the city's 150,000 and growing Christian expatriate population.
"I feel that being a Muslim country, they should not allow a church to be here"
Nabila Rahman, elementary school teacher in Doha
Construction of buildings for four other groups - Anglican, Coptic and the Greek Orthodox communities, as well as an inter-denominational centre where 11 Indian churches will converge under a single roof - is also under way, says Schwartz, who is involved in the Anglican Church of the Epiphany effort.
When completed, the complex will be one of the largest Christian structures in the Gulf, Naim Fouad Wakin, the project contractor, told Al Jazeera.
The $20m Catholic church, which seats 2,700, is located in the southern outskirts of the city on land donated by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar's emir, and leased for a nominal fee.
Though it sits amid mounds of uneven gravel and sand, Schwartz predicted rapid development within the next two years. Around 7,000 housing units are going up in the area, he said.
Because of the controversy surrounding the church's opening, security patrols are to monitor the complex for months to come.
In keeping with government requests, the building's exterior bears no crosses, steeple or church bells. The interior is similarly cautious, awash in soft blues and yellows, subtly airbrushed Biblical imagery - including a few crucifixes - and understated stained-glass windows.
"We have complied and intend to keep complying with every regulation set by the government," Archbishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Arabia and the senior Roman Catholic cleric in the region, said on Friday.
But the idea of an official space for Christians, however unassuming, does not sit well with some Doha residents.
"I'm not OK with it," Nabila Rahman, 37, told Al Jazeera after Friday prayers in a Doha mosque. "I feel that being a Muslim country, they should not allow a church to be here," the Sri Lankan elementary school teacher added.
The complete church complex is expected to be
one of the largest in the Gulf [Omar Chatriwala]
Khalifa Saleh, a 24-year-old Qatari, held the opposite perspective, commending the government for helping a religious minority feel more welcome in the country.
"This is a great step towards respect and tolerance. Many Christian expatriates have moved to Qatar in search for a better future. Their hard work and dedication to their work helps give Qatar a brighter future and I thank them for that."
He said that only a minority of nationals, which account for less than a third of Qatar's one million residents, are upset about the church.
"Those people have to be ignored. We ask for a mosque in England, so why can't people ask for a church in Qatar? As long as the religion does not interfere with the state or not impose itself on other Muslims, I see no problem at all."
Indeed, religious leaders have promised not to proselytise. And because it is illegal in Qatar for Muslims to convert to other religions, the church must handle any natives interested in Christianity with extra care, Schwartz said.
If Muslims were to come to him inquiring about his faith, he said, "I would be expected to turn them away."
A heart's delight
With the opening of Our Lady of the Rosary, Saudi Arabia remains the only Gulf state to ban churches and open worship by non-Muslims.
Those who oppose churches in the Gulf often quote the Prophet Muhammad as saying "no two religions will come together in the Arabian peninsula".
But Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, former dean of the sharia (Islamic law) school at Qatar University and a vocal advocate of Doha's new church, offered another interpretation.
"This does not mean that churches should be banned in Qatar because religious scholars believe it applies to the Hijaz - specifically Mecca and Medina," Islam's two holiest cities in Saudi Arabia, Ansari said in a local newspaper article.
"Let's all welcome the presence of churches in Qatar ... as a demonstration of Islamic tolerance and human brotherhood."
In Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, churches were seen as one way to attract more foreign workers. Hinder said he expects Doha's churches to do the same.
"When the spiritual needs of people are met, they will be more happy at work," he said. "This new building is a delight for our hearts."
Source: Al Jazeera
Komunitas Katolik merupakan komunitas Kristen terbesar di Qatar dengan jumlah jemaah sekitar 100.000 orang. Komunitas kristiani lainnya berjumlah sekitar separuhnya dan terdiri dari berbagai aliran seperti Anglican, Orthodox Yunani dan Orthodox Syria.
Di negeri muslim yang luasnya hanya 4.254 mil persegi penduduknya hanya 744.000 jiwa dan warga Negara Qatari hanya sekitar 200.000 jiwa. Mayoritas muslim Qatar ialah Sunni dan hanya 10% Syi’ah.
Menurut laporan IRFR – International Religious Freedom Report 2005 – konstitusi Qatar menjamin kebebasan beribadah bagi penduduk Qatar. Namun konstitusi tegas melarang proselitisme (bujukan untuk beralih agama) oleh kaum non-muslim. Hal ini dapat diancam pidana 10 tahun bila dilakukan atas nama lembaga, maksimal 5 tahun bila atas nama pribadi dan bila ada laporan propaganda proselitisme dapat diancam maksimal 2 tahun penjara.
Pemerintah secara hukum berhak mengatur pengadaan, import dan distribusi material ibadah dan buku-buku agama non-muslim. Dalam praktek kebutuhan untuk lembaga dan pribadi tidak dicegah secara terang-terangan. Bahkan asesori kebutuhan perayaan Natal misalnya, banyak tersedia dengan bebas di toko-toko dan mal-mal. Namun, ternyata umat Hindu, Buddha dan Bahai tidaklah menikmati kebebasan seperti komunitas Kristen. Mereka dilaranng menyewa gedung untuk tujuan beribadat secara berjemaah. Akibatnya mereka terpaksa beribadah di rumah pribadi. Namun ibadat resmi tidak pernah sampai dihalang-halangi.
Pembangunan Gereja baru bagi umat Katolik dilakukan di atas sebidang tanah yang dihibahkan oleh Emir Qatar, Amir Hamad bin Khalifa al- Thani. Gereja Santa Maria Ratu Rosari (Our Lady of The Rosary) ini dapat menampung 2.700 umat.
Biaya pembangunannya cukup mahal yaitu 15 juta US dollar, bahkan menurut taksiran Kantor Berita Al Jazeera angka itu mencapai 20 juta dollar. Gereja ini diresmikan oleh Utusan Paus, Kardinal Ivan Dias. Perayaan konselebrasi dilakukan bersama Uskup Paul Hinder yang menjabat Vikaris Apostolik Arabia. Gereja ini akan dipimpin oleh Pastor Kepala Paroki Fr. Tom Veneration asal Filippina karena mayoritas umat di Qatar adalah para pekerja asal Filippina.
Berbeda dengan umat Katolik Kuwait yang didominasi oleh etnik India sehingga Gereja-gereja di Kuwait semuanya dipimpin oleh para pastor karmelit etnik India.
Kebaikan hati Emir Qatar menghadiahkan tanah bagi umat Katolik ini mengangetkan banyak pihak karena Qatar selama 14 abad terus menutup diri dan menentang pembangunan gereja Kristen di negeri muslim tersebut terutama karena tekanan sekte Wahabbiyah. Perlu diketahui bahwa hubungan dengan Vatican baru dirintis sejak tahun 2002 yang lalu. Sedangkan izin untuk mendirikan gereja baru ini saja telah diajukan 20 tahun yang lalu.
Adalah Emir Amir Hamad yang telah mempelopori reformasi pada konstitusi Negara Qatar sehingga menjadi semakin terbuka bagi berbagai agama dan merintis dialog antar agama. Misalnya, pada tanggal 26 Juni 2005 telah diselenggarakan di Doha, Qatar, The Third Conference for Religious Dialogue on Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Sesuatu yang mustahil terjadi pada era sebelumnya.
Namun selalu saja tuduhan miring bahwa Qatar membuka diri karena Negara minyak tersebut berambisi untuk menjadi tuan rumah Olympiade tahun 2016. Secara tidak langsung hal tersebut sedikit banyak disiratkan juga oleh Menteri Perindustrian dan Energi Qatar, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah yang mengatakan bahwa: “Gereja akan memberi pesan positif kepada dunia.” (“The church will send a positive message to the world.”)
Dan kepada koresponden Asia News, mantan Dekan Fakultas Syariah, Qatar University mengatakan: “Marilah kita mengucapkan selamat datang kepada kehadiran gereja di Qatar sebagai suatu demonstrasi tolernasi islami dan persaudaraan kemanusiaan.” (“Let’s all welcome the presence of church in Qatar as a demonstration of islamic tolerance and human brotherhood.”)
Regina Setiadi, seorang karyawati usia 37 tahun asal Indonesia yang bekerja di Qatar sejak tahun kemarin menuturkan kepada al-Jazeera bahwa saat ia meninggalkan Indonesia ia tidak membawa serta Kitab Suci, salib maupun Rosario miliknya. Ia pikir tidak mungkinlah ada kesempatan baginya untuk beribadat ke gereja di negara mayoritas muslim tersebut. Kini ia dapat menjalankan ibadatnya dengan khidmat di sebuah Gereja yang terbaru dan terbesar di kawasan Teluk. Sumber: Asia News, BBC, Al Jazeera, Kuwait Times, Mingguan Hidup. JS. ■
QATAR, MINGGU - Ribuan umat melakukan ibadat di gereja Katolik pertama yang ada di salah satu negara Teluk, Qatar, Sabtu. Perayaan ibadah berlangsung selama sekitar 5 jam di gereja itu yang dibangun dengan biaya sebesar 15 juta dollar AS (sekitar Rp 138 miliar).
Ini kali pertama di negara Islam tersebut sebuah gereja diakui eksistensinya. Bahkan di dekat gereja Katolik itu tengah dibangun empat gereja untuk umat Kristen dari beberapa denominasi.
Pengakuan eksistensi itu merupakan kebijakan resmi dari penguasa Qatar, Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Sang Emir sendiri yang menghadiahkan lahan untuk gereja-gereja itu di ibukota Qatar, Doha.
"Saya menyampaikan salam khusus dari Paus Benediktus XVI kepada Emir. Tanpa hadiah dari beliau yang indah ini kepada umat Katolik, jelas kita tidak akan pernah bisa berkumpul seperti ini," tutur Kardinal Ivan Dias, utusan khusus Paus Benediktus XVI, dalam acara peresmian gereja tersebut.
Pengakuan eksistensi agama Kristen di negara tersebut tak lepas dari fakta populasi manusia di Qatar. Jumlah orang yang tinggal di negeri kaya minyak tersebut sebanyak 70 persen-nya adalah orang asing (ekspatriat). Mereka adalah pekerja di bidang perminyakan, dan sektor lainnya.
Dari jumlah orang asing itu, sekitar 150.000 orang beragama Kristen, dari beragam aliran. Dari jumlah itu diperkirakan sekitar 90 persen-nya beragam Katolik yang berasal dari Filipina, India, dan negara lainnya.
Pengakuan atas keragaman itu juga tak lepas dari upaya Qatar dalam berjuang menjadi tuan rumah Olimpiade 2016. (AP)
DOHA, Qatar – Qatar's first Christian church has no cross, no bell and no steeple.
And when 5,000 faithful flock to Our Lady of the Rosary to celebrate its historic consecration this weekend, they pray no one will notice.
Father Tom Veneracion, the parish priest, is worried about a backlash.
"The idea is to be discreet because we don't want to inflame any sensitivities," he says. "There isn't even a signboard outside the church. No signs at all."
Qatar's fledgling Catholic community considers its sprawling $15 million saucer-shaped facility a victory. A 15-minute drive into barren desert, it has been built with the blessing of the nation's emir.
But some people in this Muslim country have branded it an offense; one prominent politician has called for a national referendum to determine its fate.
And as the church lookd forward to its first Easter service, the controversy is getting considerable attention among this gas-rich country's press.
"The cross should not be raised in the sky of Qatar, nor should bells toll in Doha," wrote Lahdan bin Issa al-Muhanada, a leading columnist in Doha's Al-Arab newspaper.
But Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, the former dean of the Islamic law school at Qatar University, disagrees. He wrote that having "places of worship for various religions is a fundamental human right guaranteed by Islam."
Sitting in his sparse office in the portable building that has served as a makeshift chapel for his congregation for the last six years, Veneracion said he was bewildered by the dispute.
"It is confusing to us," said the priest, a soft-spoken man from the Philippines who seemed genuinely caught off guard by the controversy.
"We tried to be discreet, and I think there's an atmosphere generally in the Gulf that's fairly anti-Christian, but that's mainly to do with what's happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It has nothing to do with us at all."
In Doha, the call to build a Catholic church has grown as waves of migrant workers from South Asia and the Philippines arrived in the Gulf, answering the call for cheap labor to fuel the region's runaway economy.
But the Christian immigrants have sometimes collided with the native Qatari population, which practices Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam.
Native Qataris account for only 200,000 of the country's population of 900,000.
The Vatican estimates there are 100,000 practicing Catholics in Qatar. They attended underground services until seven years ago, when Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the country's current ruler, granted permission to five denominations to open churches.
The Sheikh, who seized control from his father in a 1995 palace coup, is a staunch U.S. ally, and the move is part of a broader push to promote Qatar as an open and tolerant society, in order to attract tourism and business.
Veneracion says that the church, when it's completed, will serve as a place for "prayer and inter-faith dialogue." The grounds boast a catechism building and conference center. A wedding party has already booked a ceremony and reception in May.
When Our Lady of the Rosary opens its doors, it will make Saudi Arabia the only Gulf state that still bans churches.
But it remains unclear if Qataris will accept the church, or whether a backlash will force it to close its doors.
Rashed al-Subaie, a Qatari engineer, wrote in a letter to the Al-Watan newspaper that Christians should practice their faith only "in line with public morals without being given licenses to set up places of worship."
Christians should "worship their God in their homes," he wrote.
But Qatar's Catholic faithful remain resolute. A few days ago, Lourdes Carvallo and her elderly mother attended what they prayed would be one of their last morning services in the makeshift chapel.
The 38-year-old housewife from Goa, India, was born in Qatar and grew up attending underground mass in neighbors' homes.
She said: "We have been waiting for this for such a long time and we are feeling very hopeful, because finally we will have a proper place of worship."