NEWS ANALYSIS: The Cathedral of Córdoba has become a battleground in the campaign to reduce the influence of the Church in Spain and beyond.
The Cathedral of Córdoba, officially titled the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption and also commonly known as the Mosque-Cathedral, has been the ecclesiastical heart of the Diocese of Córdoba since 1236.
Ranked as one of the most impressive architectural wonders of the world, and honored since 1984 as part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and visited by more than 1.5 million tourists every year, the cathedral’s ownership is now also a target of protest from both the Spanish left and Muslim activists.
The dispute is part of a long-running campaign to seize the church on the basis that it should not belong to Catholics, but to the whole world. While the civil government’s claim to the church is legally tenuous and the Muslim claim hearkens to a legendary golden age of Moorish Spain, the campaign is testing the religious freedom for Christians in a still-majority Catholic country and should be of concern to Catholics everywhere.
As former Spanish ambassador to Washington Javier Ruperez observed to the Register, “We do have a problem in Cordoba. … What we are watching there is not only an anti-Catholic operation. It is an anti-Western operation.”
The Reconquista and Al-Andalus
In an era of revisionist history, the Reconquista is certainly a cause célèbre. That centuries-long campaign to free the Iberian Peninsula from the control of the Moors after the Muslim invasion of the eighth century ended officially in 1492, with the fall of the Moorish Kingdom of Granada to the forces of Ferdinand and Isabella and the political unification of Spain.
The crusade is today depicted not as a war to free the peninsula from the domination of Muslim states, where Christians and Jews lived under sharia law, but the destruction of an advanced and peaceful Muslim civilization by barbaric and unenlightened Catholics.
This rewriting of the past is especially common when looking at the recapture of the city of Córdoba by Christian armies in 1236 under the saintly King Ferdinand III of Castile.
The region of southern Spain known as Andalusia, al-Andalus in the Arabic, was the political center of Moorish control of the peninsula.
Moorish culture reached its zenith under the Ummayad Dynasty of rulers who claimed the title of caliph with their capital at Córdoba. During the glory years of the caliphate in the ninth-11th centuries, Córdoba was renowned for its art, architecture, learning — the library of al-Hakam boasted 400,000 volumes — and engineering, including running water.
But the crown jewel of all al-Andalus was the Great Mosque, the symbol of Ummayad power and glory.
The mosque was commissioned in 784 by Abd ar-Rahman I and was subsequently expanded by his successors until it was able to welcome 40,000 people and was considered one of the largest and greatest architectural achievements in the entire Islamic world, with its striking arches and columns made of jasper, granite, onyx and marble.
The site of the mosque, however, had very ancient roots. According to archaeologists, after Visigoths captured Córdoba in 572, they established a church on the site that by the time of the Muslim invasion had the title of the Basilica of St. Vincent. It was initially allowed to continue as the last Christian church by agreement with the new Muslim overlords, but, soon, half of it was taken to provide additional prayer space for newly arriving Muslims from Damascus.
The rest of the basilica was eventually “purchased” from the Christians and destroyed in order to build the new Great Mosque.
Such was the beauty of the Great Mosque, the Mezquita in Spanish, that when Córdoba was captured by King Ferdinand, one of the first decisions he had to face was what to do with it.
The new ruler decided to transform the mosque into the city’s new cathedral. Respectful of the architecture, he maintained the columns and even preserved the ornate horseshoe-arched mihrab, or prayer niche, and its stunning dome above.
The minaret, meanwhile, was converted to a bell tower, with bells brought from Santiago de Compostela. In effect, Ferdinand preserved the mosque’s beauty for posterity.
With the exception of the chapels found throughout, the one major structural change was made in the 16th century, when Emperor Charles V permitted Bishop Alonso Manrique to construct a Renaissance cathedral in the middle of the building.
Unquestionably, the Caliphate of Córdoba was marked by great artistic and intellectual achievements, and the caliphate has been heralded as proof of the convivencia, or “coexistence,” of the claim that al-Andalus was a place in which Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together in peace under a tolerant Islam. This is an image that persists stubbornly.
President Barack Obama hailed Córdoba’s “proud tradition of tolerance” in his infamous speech on Islam in Cairo in 2009, and similar claims were made by Imam Feisal Abdul Rau when he worked to erect the mosque at Ground Zero in New York under the name of the “Córdoba House.”
As Dario Fernandez-Morera has convincingly demonstrated in his important study, The Myth of the Andalusian Paradise: Muslims, Christians and Jews Under Islamic Rule in Medieval Spain (2016), Andalusia was far from a paradise for Christians and Jews, as they suffered from political and social disabilities, had to pay the jizya (religious tax), and endured persecutions and oppression under sharia (Islamic law).
The Church honors the ninth-century Martyrs of Córdoba who died under Muslim persecution.
A New Crusade
The propaganda surrounding Muslim Córdoba is also a key element in the campaign by socialists in Spain who have found common ground with Muslim activists in trying to seize the cathedral.
In 2004 and 2006, Muslims in Spain and elsewhere, mostly recent converts to Islam, petitioned the Holy See to allow Muslim prayers in the cathedral. In 2007, the secretary general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, used a summit in Córdoba on “Islamophobia” by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to demand publicly that Muslims be granted the right to pray there.
In April 2010, during Holy Week, two Muslims grew violent when asked to stop praying in the cathedral and seriously injured two security guards; and by that August, Islamic groups renewed their calls for the right to worship.
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 petition coincided with Andalusia’s Socialist-led coalition government’s condemnation of the Church’s supposed efforts to strip away the Muslim history of the site.
The regional government went on to declare that the diocese has no legal claim of ownership. Echoing the propaganda of the Muslim groups and the Platform, the regional civil officials claimed that the real owners “are each and every citizen of the world from whatever era and regardless of people, nation, culture or race.”
These moves have understandably caused immense concern for Church officials and Catholics around the world. During a meeting on the controversy organized in June by the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom in Washington, D.C., Bishop Demetrio Fernández González of Córdoba said, “For eight centuries we have lived peacefully with the cathedral in Catholic hands. But right now, the kind of idea that the Muslims have had, this dream that they’ve had to somehow take back the cathedral, is being helped by the political left. So it is a kind of alliance coming in from the left. The politicians realize that the cathedral is property of the Church, but what they would like is for it to become public property. So it would be a type of expropriation.”
Fortunately, the current governing laws in Spain prevent such outright seizure, and Bishop Fernández has also been assured that, should this actually happen, Pope Francis and the Holy See would enter the fray. That will, of course, not stop opposition officials from trying.
And while the current law blocks such expropriation, other goals might be more attainable. The bishop warned of “the more immediate objectives, such as asking for them [Muslims] to be able to share the cathedral … but that’s not possible, neither for the Catholics nor for the Muslims.”
Equally, there is no desperate need for prayer space on the part of Muslims, as there are barely 1,500 in the city, which is served by two mosques. The Islamic population in Spain, while growing through immigration, makes up barely 4% of the total population.
Local Muslims are also not behind the controversy. The push is coming from outside of Spain, and it is believed that much of the funding is being provided by Arab countries, with some Church officials and even Ambassador Ruperez warning that funding may even be coming from Qatar, which is facing many accusations of being a state sponsor of international terrorism.
Ambassador Ruperez stresses that religious freedom and the legacy of the West are at stake.
“The basic values which have been the basic foundation of the West,” he says, “which is individual freedom, which is respect for the rule of law, which is the separation of church and state, are being put into serious doubt.”
The irony of this, of course, is that political leaders in Spain are actually proposing that Christian churches be seized once more, just as they were 1,200 years ago, and handed to Muslims.
Nina Shea, the director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, told the Register, “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.”
Should this alliance succeed, it would be an immense victory — and not just a symbolic one — for the Islamist cause at a time when Europe is already purging its own Christian history.
As Bishop Fernández notes, “They want to reverse the Reconquista.”
Matthew Bunson is a senior editor for the Register and senior contributor to EWTN.