- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008

DOHA, Qatar (Agence France-Presse) — Thousands of Christians took part yesterday in the first Mass at Muslim Qatar’s only church, opened last week despite threats from Islamists.

Vatican envoy Cardinal Ivan Dias presided over the Eucharist attended by about 15,000 worshippers at Our Lady of the Rosary Roman Catholic Church in Doha, thanking “God and Qatar for this great gift.”

The church, which like elsewhere in the Persian Gulf Arab region has no bells or crosses on its exterior, opened Friday ahead of Western Christianity’s celebration of Easter, which this year falls next Sunday.

It is the first of five churches to be constructed in the gas-rich Gulf state.

From early morning, Catholics began arriving at the church, which accommodates about 5,000. Big screens were erected on the grounds to allow the overflow to follow the Mass, celebrated during the consecration of the building.

The Mass was conducted in English, but prayers were also said in Arabic, Urdu, Hindi, Tagalog, Spanish and French for the many nationalities that would worship in the church.

Dozens of police were deployed around the $20 million church, and female officers searched the handbags of female worshippers.

Western embassies, particularly from the United States and Britain, sent warnings to nationals living in Qatar to be extra vigilant after an Islamic militant group made threats on the Internet linked to the opening of the church.

“Extremists may elect to use conventional or nonconventional weapons and target both official and private interests. Examples of such targets include … the new Christian Church complex in Doha,” it said.

Worshippers said they were not concerned about the threats.

“It is a day without precedent. I am very happy. The threats were made, but I didn’t pay them much attention. I trust the country’s authorities,” Catholic Filipino Shato Mawude said.

Qatari Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah said the church “sends a positive message to the world.”

“At the moment, we are enjoying the construction of mosques and Islamic centers in the West, so we must be fair” toward Christians in the region and allow them places of worship, he said.

Qatar is a close ally of Washington and hosts the command headquarters for U.S. forces in the Middle East.

In the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, police yesterday guarded one of the main churches in bustling Dubai and searched worshippers. Police closed off access to cars around St. Mary’s Catholic Church. Police said the “precautionary” moves would last until March 25, after Easter.

The UAE prides itself on its religious tolerance and cultural diversity, and most Gulf Arab states have long allowed Christians to worship in churches. But Saudi Arabia, which adheres to a rigorous doctrine of Islam known as Wahhabism and is home to Islam’s holiest sites, bans all non-Muslim religious rituals and materials.

The papal nuncio in the Gulf, Archbishop Paul-Munjed al-Hashem, said on the sidelines of the church service that talks had begun with Riyadh to persuade it to become the final Gulf Arab state to allow churches.

He said Saudi Arabia has more than 3 million Christian residents.

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