The Spanish Left, in conjunction with Muslim activists in southern Spain, is trying to seize control of the Cathedral of Córdoba from the Catholic Church. Local politicians affiliated with the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE) contend that the cathedral belongs to the world, rather than to a private owner. Catholic officials disagree, however, believing the Church rightfully owns the cathedral.
The cathedral has a long and storied past. It was built as a mosque soon after Muslim soldiers conquered Spain in the eighth century and was transformed into a cathedral during the Reconquista, the period in which Christian rulers retook control of the country. The Basilica of Saint Vincent, an ancient Christian church, originally stood in the place where the mosque was constructed.
In the early 2000s, Spanish Muslims appealed to the Catholic Church to permit them to pray in the cathedral. In 2006, after the Church rejected the prayer petition, the former president of the Córdoba-based Islamic Council, Mansur Escudero, “began performing his Friday prayers outside the mosque-cathedral as a protest against the Church’s decision.”
The Catholic Church officially registered ownership of the cathedral in 2006, although it has controlled it since the 13th century. In 2013, “an organization called the ‘Platform for the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba’ secured more than 350,000 names for a petition demanding the seizure of the cathedral, a push heavily promoted by the Spanish socialist newspaper El Pais.” The Economist reported in 2015 that the mayor, a member of the PSOE, promised to place the cathedral under public ownership. Last year, Córdoba’s city council issued a report claiming neither the Church nor any other body could own the property, because it belongs to “each and every citizen of the world from whatever epoch and regardless of people, nation, culture or race.”
The city council cannot outright expropriate the property, but the Wall Street Journal reports that “Andalusian law would permit expropriation if a court determined the diocese had failed properly to maintain and conserve the property.” According the same report, the pope has told the bishop of Córdoba, Demetrio Fernández González, that he would support the diocese if a legal battle ensues.
A questionable historical narrative informs a significant component of the Spanish Left’s case against the Church. The cathedral, or mosque-cathedral as it is sometimes called, represents “a universal paradigm of concord between cultures” according to the platform’s petition. When Spain was under Muslim control, interreligious harmony and tolerance supposedly reigned. Therefore, as a symbol of interreligious concord, the cathedral shouldn’t belong to any one religious body.
Darío Fernández-Morera, an associate professor in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at Northwestern University, has argued that medieval Spain was not an interreligious paradise. In an interview with National Review, he deconstructed this largely fictionalized historical narrative, saying that “the life of a Christian was close to the value of the life of a Muslim woman, which in turn was about half the value of a Muslim man.”
According to Professor Fernández-Morera, if a Christian killed a Muslim, even in self-defense, the Christian had to be killed, but if a Muslim killed a Christian, even intentionally, the Muslim could not be killed. Moreover, Christians couldn’t testify against a Muslim in court because his testimony wouldn’t be valid. “There is simply no legal basis,” he said, “for the idea that this was a tolerant community.”
The Cathedral of Córdoba has been a Catholic place of worship since the mid-13th century.
Professor Fernández-Morera also pointed out that the cathedral building “hasn’t been a mosque for eight centuries.” In 1236, King Ferdinand III oversaw the transformation of the mosque into a Christian church. One might even say that he returned it to its former status, for the mosque had been built where the Basilica of Saint Vincent once stood. The Cathedral of Córdoba has been a Catholic place of worship since the mid-13th century, and to suggest it should be publicly owned because it symbolizes an era of interreligious tolerance defies history.
In the midst of this controversy, the Church has been accused of abusing its power to register ownership of land in Spain. One person interviewed by The Economist called it “the largest real-estate scandal that Spain has ever seen.” This, in turn, has resulted in some people questioning the Church’s tax-exempt status:
Since the economic crisis of 2008, however, hard-pressed town halls have increasingly questioned the fiscal exemptions as well as the lack of transparency around what assets the church actually registered and owns.
There is reason to believe, however, that opponents of the Church are using the cathedral controversy to paint the Church as more fiscally and politically powerful than it truly is in Spain. Javier Ruperez, the former ambassador of Spain to the United States, told National Review that although “the Church was extremely powerful” in Spain a couple of centuries ago, “this is no longer true.”
Ruperez also suggested that the alliance of secular left-wing forces and Muslim activists was a marriage of convenience. “They coincide in one thing,” he said, “which is to try to go against the Catholic church.” The National Catholic Register reported similar comments by Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute:
What is unique in this case is it is not an Islamist government doing this, but a left-leaning one — left-leaning officials who are anti-Catholic, and maybe anti-Muslim too, but they see this as a convenient way of suppressing religion; suppressing Catholicism in Spain.
At this point, Ruperez said he “wouldn’t want to exaggerate the magnitude of the problem.” Still, this is a conflict worth watching. Charlotte Allen, a columnist and historian, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “the issue ultimately is one of religious freedom,” and whether or not the Church’s property is confiscated “will indicate where an increasingly secular Spain is headed.”
The controversy over Córdoba’s cathedral reveals the way in which misguided conceptions of history can have unfortunate consequences. Moreover, it shows that members of the secular left wing of Spanish politics are willing to make pragmatic alliances to undermine the Catholic Church’s remaining power and influence in Spain. The cathedral of Córdoba should welcome people of all faiths, but it would be a mistake to deny that it is rightfully in the hands of the Catholic Church.
— Jeff Cimmino is an editorial intern at National Review.