Page last updated at 22:21 GMT, Friday, 14 March 2008

First church inaugurated in Qatar

St Mary's Catholic church in Qatar, March 2008
Thousands of expatriate workers will be worshipping at the new church

The Christian community in Qatar has opened the first official church in the Gulf state.

St Mary's Roman Catholic church was inaugurated in the capital, Doha.

Tens of thousands of Christians, most of them Catholic, live in the emirate, which has a mainly Sunni Muslim population.

Previously, Christians were not permitted to worship openly. Saudi Arabia is now the only country in the region to prohibit church building.

'Positive message'

Among diplomats and senior officials attending the opening ceremony was Qatar's minister of energy and industry, Abdullah bin Hamad al-Attiyah.

"The church will send a positive message to the world," he said.

The church is expected to cater for the country's large community of foreign workers, mainly from the Philippines and other Asian countries.

The building is estimated to have cost $15m and seats 2,700 people.

Tomasito Veneracion, the priest of the new parish, expressed gratitude to the Qatari authorities for allowing the project to go ahead.

"The opening of the church is an important event for the entire community," he said.

There are plans for further churches in Qatar, which correspondents describe as part of a strategy of opening up to the West.

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