Christians in Qatar will celebrate Easter this year in a church for the first time in 14 centuries.
Next month, the St. Mary's Catholic Church will be among the first of a series of churches to open its doors in the Qatar capital of Doha. Anglican, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic churches are expected to soon follow.
"A few years ago, opening a church in Qatar was sort of impossible, but Qatar has changed since the coming of the new emir," Italian ambassador Igantio Di Pashi recently told a local Qatari newspaper, noting the significance of the country's first church since the 7th century.
The construction of a church in this tiny, oil-rich, conservative, Islamic state has been a historical landmark for the country's diverse Christian population – mostly expatriates from India, the Philippines, Lebanon, and various Western countries.
Strict Islamic laws had previously barred the country's Christian community from public prayer and religious services.
In 2005, however, pro-Western ruler Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani allowed for the construction of Christian churches, in a move to open up and demonstrate an Islam tolerant of other religions.
Yet the establishment of churches has not been without criticism in the small, strict, Islamic country. Many critics refer to quotations from Islamic Prophet Mohammed that state "no two religions will come together in the Arabian peninsula."
"The cross should not be raised in the sky of Qatar, nor should bells toll in Doha," wrote columnist Lahdan bin Issa al-Muhanadi of the Doha daily Al-Arab in reflection of this sentiment.
Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, a former Islamic law school dean of Qatar University, pointed out, however, that the quotations from Mohammed are out of context and refer only to Mecca and Medina, the two holy cities of Islam.
"This does not mean that churches should be banned in Qatar," he noted, according to Agence France-Presse. "Places of worship for various religions is [sic] a fundamental human right guaranteed by Islam.
"Let's all welcome the presence of churches in Qatar as a demonstration of Islamic tolerance and human brotherhood," he said.
According to the World Christian Database, there are about 70,000 Christians in Qatar, consisting of about 7,000 Anglicans and 50,000 Catholics.
Christianity was brought to the Gulf States by missionaries in the second half of the 5th century but disappeared almost completely in the Gulf Arab states with the arrival of Islam in the 7th century.