DOHA -- A bitter debate has broken out in the tiny, oil-rich Gulf state of Qatar over construction of the Muslim country's first Christian church, set to open next month in time for Easter.
Critics have branded the concept as "repulsive" while supporters said building places of worship for other religions is a right guaranteed by Islam.
One former minister insisted there should have been a public referendum.
"The cross should not be raised in the sky of Qatar, nor should bells toll in Doha," wrote columnist Lahdan bin Issa al-Muhanadi in the Doha daily Al-Arab -- adding an apology in case the concept upset any readers in this country of 900,000, of whom only 200,000 are native Qataris.
The former dean of the sharia (Islamic law) school at Qatar University, Abdul Hamid al-Ansari, disagreed, saying having "places of worship for various religions is a fundamental human right guaranteed by Islam."
Ansari has written several newspaper articles welcoming the Roman Catholic Church in Doha, which is called St. Mary's and will be inaugurated on March 15 by Vatican envoy Cardinal Ivan Dias.
Four other Christian denominations are also planning to build churches in Qatar, whose ruling family and most of its small native population adheres to a strict rigorous doctrine of Islam known as Wahhabism.
Once St. Mary's opens, neighbor Saudi Arabia, which also practices Wahhabism, will be the only Arab nation in the Gulf that bans churches.
Gas-wealthy Qatar has opened up since current ruler and staunch US ally Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani seized control and ousted his father in a 1995 palace coup.
Qatar's leaders have even hosted Jewish rabbis and Christian clerics alongside Muslim religious scholars at annual inter-faith forums.
But Ansari sees the old influence in the current opposition. He attributes it to "a fanatic culture resulting from religious teaching (stipulating) hatred for the other and from social norms that denied non-Muslims their rights on the basis of old political and security considerations that have become obsolete."
St. Mary's parish priest, Father Tomasito Veneracion, a Filipino, stressed in comments to the daily Al-Raya that the church would be "merely a place for collective prayer."
It would not have crosses outside the building or serve as a platform for proselytizing, he said, adding that it would finally provide a place of worship for those who up to now were forced to practice religious rituals at home.
It would be open in time for the solemn Easter holy day, which this year falls on March 23.
For other Christians, construction of an Anglican church will begin in May, according to Qatar's Anglican priest Canon William Schwarz.
Building has already begun on a Greek Orthodox Church and another for Copts.
The Vatican website estimates about 100,000 Qatar residents are Christian. Most are Indians, Filipinos, Lebanese and Western nationals who, despite praying in private, have celebrated Christmas publicly for about a decade.
The debate meanwhile has spilled into the letters pages of Doha's dailies.
Engineer Rashed al-Subaie, in a letter to Al-Watan, agreed Christians should be allowed to practice their faith but should do so "in line with public morals without being given licenses to set up places of worship."
Christians should "worship their God in their homes," not publicly, he wrote.
Lawyer and former justice minister Najib al-Nuaimi also objected to building churches in Qatar on "legal and social" grounds.
"Qatar is a Muslim -- not secular -- state, as per its constitution. There should have been a referendum on the building of these churches in order to ensure they are socially accepted," he told Agence France-Presse.
But Ansari hit back at those citing Islamic texts to justify their rejection, notably Muhanadi who has quoted the Prophet Mohammed saying "no two religions will come together in the Arabian peninsula."
"This does not mean that churches should be banned in Qatar because [Islamic] religious scholars believe it applies to Hijaz -- specifically Mecca and Medina," Islam's two holiest cities in Saudi Arabia, Ansari said.
"Let's all welcome the presence of churches in Qatar as a demonstration of Islamic tolerance and human brotherhood," he said.