Qatar får sine første kirke lørdag. 90 prosent av befolkningen er utlendinger og av dem er 150.000 kristne. Kirken får ikke lov å ha noen utvendige kristne symboler.

Det er langt fra gjensidighet når det gjelder religiøs toleranse i Vesten og den muslimske verden. Nå er det bare Saudi-Arabia som har totalforbud mot kirker, men antallet i den arabiske verden er lite, og omhegnes av restriksjoner. At man ikke må vise kristne symboler, sier en del. Av en eller annen grunn er gjensidig toleranse i liten grad et tema i vestlige medier, der gjengangeren er dialog. Dialog på hjemmnebane betyr konsesjoner, mens det er lite snakk om dialog i land der kristne er minoriteter.

DOHA, Qatar – This tiny, wealthy Arab Gulf country is opening its first Roman Catholic church, ending decades of clandestine worship for tens of thousands of foreign workers.

The consecration of the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, planned for Saturday, appears to be a sign of Qatar’s efforts to open up to the West as it seeks a bid for the Olympic Games in 2016.

Qatar’s ruler has also approved five churches for other Christian denominations, all under construction next to the Catholic one.

Attracted by a booming oil economy, expatriate workers make up at least 70 percent of Qatar’s population of about 1 million.

Some 150,000 Christians of all denominations live here, over 90 percent of them Catholic expatriate workers from the Philippines and other Asian nations, Christian community representatives said.

Qatar follows the rigorous Wahhabi teachings of Sunni Islam, and like neighboring Saudi Arabia had not previously authorized Christians to practice their faith openly.

But a priest had operated in Qatar since the 1960s without official approval, said Archbishop Paul Hinder, the Apostolic Vicar of Arabia and the top Roman Catholic cleric in the region.

«Catholics in Doha finally have their home where they can gather in freedom and security,» Hinder said by telephone from his base in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Qatar’s emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, personally donated the land to build the $15 million church with 2,700 seats in the outskirts of the capital, Doha, church officials said.

Out of respect for local sensitivities, the church will not feature any religious symbols — neither a cross or a bell tower — that would identify the building as a place of Christian worship.

«The opening of the church is an important event for the entire community,» said Tomasito Veneracion, the priest for the new parish. «We are grateful to the Qatari authorities for having allowed its construction.»

Qatar’s decision to allow open churches leaves Saudi Arabia as the only country in the region that doesn’t allow the building of churches for any Christian denomination, or any open worship.

U.S. government officials and private religious officials have often been sharply critical of Saudi Arabia’s lack of religious freedom. Workers from the Philippines, for example, have in the past been punished or deported if caught practicing the Christian faith in worship services.

However, Archbishop Hinder said «the climate» in Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, «has improved,» citing last year’s visit by Saudi King Abdullah to the Vatican.

The first Catholic church in the Gulf was opened in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, in 1939.

There are seven Catholic churches in the United Arab Emirates, four in Oman and three in Kuwait. Yemen has three belonging to indigenous Christians and four unofficial Catholic parishes around the country that meet for prayers in rented houses.

A handful of critics in Qatar have publicly condemned the ruler’s decision to allow the building of Christian churches.

But many Qataris consider Sheik Hamad a progressive leader and credit him for social and economic reforms since 1995, when he overthrew his more conservative father in a coup.

In the last three years, Sheik Hamad has made several changes to this rich but traditional and deeply conservative Muslim society. He has enacted a new constitution calling for an elected parliament and guaranteeing freedom of speech and worship.

But he also kept in place Islam’s Sharia law, which forbids Muslims from converting to other religions.

Qatar is rich in oil and holds the world’s largest gas reserves.

The country’s most ambitious move to open up to the world has come through sports. Each year, Qatar now hosts dozens of sporting events for men and women.

It held the 2006 Asian games and hopes to win the 2016 summer Olympics. A short list of candidate cities for the 2016 Olympics will be announced next June.

The emirate last month also became the first Arab state to welcome an Israeli athlete for a competition, despite a regional boycott of Israel.

Qatar set to open first Catholic church