Doha: When the Reverend Tomasito Veneracion arrived in Qatar seven years ago, his Roman Catholic parishioners prayed in small groups scattered in apartments, schools, and one tiny makeshift chapel. At Easter, Indian Catholics gathered in one place, Filipinos in another, Arabs in yet another.

But with last year's opening of Our Lady of the Rosary Church, his congregants for the first time had a recognised, central place to worship. On Christmas Eve, 15,000 attended a midnight mass, with those who couldn't cram into the 2,700-seat church watching on video screens outside.

"When I first came here, the church was not recognised. But now we are enjoying this gift," Father Veneracion says. "It's a tremendous feeling of relief that we can breathe, worship, and pray in a place without fear and without disturbance."

The decision to permit church building is widely seen as part of an effort by Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, to modernise the country.

Our Lady of the Rosary will soon be joined by several churches under construction in what is informally known as 'Church City', a 99-acre site leased to Christian denominations by the Qatar government.

Qatar's Christians, estimated at 70,000 to 80,000, are almost entirely expatriate workers, mostly from India and the Philippines.

The move gives Qatar its first church since Islam took root here in the 7th century.