It all goes down in the book: bishops go on a land grab

Legislation helps the Church to register cathedrals, shrines and even leisure facilities in its name, often to the shock of local people

The Spanish Roman Catholic Church has spent years quietly building up its real estate portfolio, registering in its name land and properties claimed by no one else. Rectories, vineyards, olive groves, atriums, empty lots and apartments that once belonged to villages or were never registered in anyone's name have been appropriated by Church officials in a real estate frenzy that is sanctioned by articles 206 and 304 of a piece of property legislation called the Mortgage Regulatory Law.

It turns out that bishops can issue ownership certificates just as though they were government workers, making it easy for the Church to do the paperwork. This registration privilege was expanded to churches, cathedrals and shrines in 1998, when the conservative Popular Party government of the time eliminated article 5 of the law, which prevented registration of places of worship.

Churches, houses, cemeteries, garages and 'pelota' courts have been claimed
"If the buildings end up in other hands, there's no guarantee they'll be respected"
"They basically told us that if we did not give in, we would be left without Mass"

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Since that year, the Church has been, in administrative jargon, "immatriculating" properties left, right and center across the country. In Navarre, men of the cloth have swept through the entire territory. Hundreds of parish churches, shrines, basilicas and everything inside them have been registered in their name; so have housing units, storehouses and even cemeteries, garages and frontones - traditional courts used to play Basque ball.

But it's not just in Navarre. The same process is taking place all over Spain thanks to a procedure that is as cheap and simple for the Church as it is complex for ordinary citizens. Many mayors and town residents have reacted with alarm to the land-grab, and are now fighting to get Church leaders to return the vast cultural heritage and real estate assets that locals consider were snatched away from their villages. "Theft" and "pillaging" are two terms that come up time and again when local authorities talk about the situation.

"Unconstitutional," is what some legal experts have to say about it. "They are not public workers, yet they may act as though they were. If Article 16 of the Constitution says there is no official state religion, then they [Catholic church officials] cannot equate themselves to a public worker," says Alejandro Torres, a professor of Public Law at Navarre Public University.

Torres cites a 1993 ruling that struck down article 76.1 of the Urban Rental Law. Until then, a priest could evict a tenant without proving his own need to occupy the dwelling. In comparison, a lay person could not do the same without proving, say, that his children needed to move into the house. The Constitutional Court essentially ruled that "state goals cannot be confused with religious goals, nor can public goals be confused with religious goals. Nor can the Church be confused with a public corporation," says Torres. "That same philosophy is completely applicable to the case of the 'immatriculations'."

That may be so, but for one of these cases to reach the Constitutional Court, it is necessary for a judge to question its constitutionality, or file an appeal. Or for an individual to go all the way up through the court system.

"They have the time and the money, we do not," says the mayor of Garisoain, Javier Ilzarbe, who has only been able to save a single shrine from the Church's hands. "They kept the Church of Asunción, the atrium, the parish house, a plot of land that went with the house and the remains of another shrine. We realized what they were doing a couple of years ago, but we are not thinking of appealing - we just don't have the resources. We do have the desire, though..."

The mayors of small villages like this one in Navarre are left with few options other than getting upset. "We cut off their electricity, which we'd always paid for; now they pay their own bills, and even though they keep asking us to fix things for them, we no longer do their construction work. In the 1980s we repaired the roof for them," says Ilzarbe.

"All this requires political willpower, for the big parties to put a stop to this or for someone to stop it in the courts. This is happening all over Spain and it's a monumental scandal," says Josemari Esparza, a member of Ekimena, a Navarrese activist group created in 2007 to defend the regional heritage.

But it is typically the bishops who go to court first, over issues such as the shrine of El Pilar in Garisoain, which the local council rushed to register to its own name before the Church could. The village won the suit. "We proposed that the shrine should belong to the village but they could continue to hold Mass there. They told us to forget it; they wanted ownership of the place, period. And they don't even pay property tax," complains Mayor Ilzarbe.

In Huarte, another Navarrese municipality, the mayor asked for a meeting with the bishop. "He refused and we met with the economist instead. He sent us to the courts, and that's where we are right now. Good thing we have a document from 1820 in which the Church specifically agreed that the temple belongs to the village," he says.

The Spanish Episcopal Conference - bishops' synod - leaves the matter in the hands of each diocese. The Navarre diocese had this to say about it in an email: "The Church does not register the buildings in order to appropriate them, but because they belong to it." As a matter of fact, the Church is just "defending itself" from local governments that "want to appropriate them."

"If the buildings end up in other hands, there is no guarantee that they will continue to be put to their original use, as has happened in the past," the message goes on. "We are observing the 1998 law: the Church registers what belongs to it." Religious officials also explained that the cost of maintaining these properties in a good state of repair is very high. "It's not the Church that's getting rich with state contributions; it's the state that is saving money due to the Church's contributions."

Yet there are instances of the exact opposite. The cathedral of Navarre underwent major restoration work worth 15 million euros, paid for with public money. Just months later, the diocese registered the temple, and in 2006 the bishopric became the owner. Entrance fees were then charged and further fees were levied on any activity held inside, says Esparza of the activist group Ekimena. "The Church wants the properties for three reasons: to sell them, to rent them out or for mortgaging. We already know they are selling and renting; we don't know whether they are mortgaging," he adds.

Esparza also mentions the case of San Miguel de Lizoain, a 13th-century temple "that was burnt down and desacralized, and where the town was planning to create a community center. In 2003 the Church registered it on the same day it registered the other temples in the valley, and now the town has had to buy it in order to build the center. It's a great business," says Esparza angrily, noting that in the past the local church served as a municipal center, school and meeting hall. "Finally, it was almost exclusively a place of worship, but it never belonged to them. Now, in Tafalla, they charge 300 eurosfor concerts by bands that used to play regularly there. The future of the Church, in business terms, lies in real estate."

A book published by Ekimena also features the case of the shrine of San Fermín, a real symbol for Pamplona, whose annual Running of the Bulls is named after the saint ("sanfermines"). The archives show what kind of huge efforts the city had to make to build it; so much so that bullfights had to be suspended for six years. "It could not possibly be more clearly established that the place was public property. Well, the diocese registered it in 2003. And it makes good money from it, too, what with weddings and other rites," says Esparza.

The Roman Catholic Church has also put its name on the parish and parish house of Ochagavía, a hamlet of 600 souls in Navarre. But even this was not as harmful as its registration of the shrine of Muskilda, set in a splendid natural landscape - a good chunk of which the Church already appropriated over a decade ago by registering the hermit's house as its own. A few signs hanging from balconies and the odd sticker claim that Muskilda belongs to the people. The registration took place quietly in 1998, when reforms to national legislation allowed it. But the locals did not find out until 10 years later. "Older residents cannot believe it," says recently elected Mayor María Luisa Saez García-Falces.

The new town hall team is planning to change lawyers. "Getting into a lawsuit with the Church is difficult, because the law appears to protect it. But we will seek out lawyers who have won similar cases. The Church says that Muskilda will stay as it is. We'll see," she says warily.

Although Navarre is the region that has reacted in the most organized way against this religious privatization fever, there are hurdles every step of the way. Navarrese activists are asking mayors to pass bylaws preventing speculation with the land adjoining the churches - the very land that the Church is registering as its own.

For now, until judges or governments step in, the battle is being fought between municipalities of a few dozen residents and the powerful diocese of Navarre. And the diocese is winning. Since 1998, it has registered 651 parish churches, 191 shrines, nine basilicas, 42 houses and apartments, 26 commercial establishments, storehouses and garages, two atriums, eight cemeteries, 107 estates, plots and empty lots, 38 pastures and moors, 12 vineyards, pine and olive groves, besides other stands of trees and one pelota court. That is 1,087 properties in total.

"Many of these constructions were built by local governments, which footed the maintenance costs, utility bills and repair work. If we follow the Church's logic that all places of worship belong to them, then how do they explain away the places that are not for worship?" says Esparza, who says his group has received emails and phone calls from dozens of villages in Galicia, Castilla y León, Andalusia, Valencia and elsewhere.

"It's immoral," says Álvaro Calderón, who describes himself as a practicing Catholic. That is what this former secretary of Garisoain told the judge in the suit over the shrine of El Pilar, which the local government won but which the Church has appealed.

Over in northern Cáceres, in the county of La Vera, there are at least 11 villages where the bishops of Plasencia have laid claim to the temples. Mayors were warned, but there has not been a protest movement there as there was in Navarre. "Everyone thought that the churches always belong to the bishops, when that is not always true," says a local resident who declined to have his name in print. Only two towns, Madrigal and Valverde, asked for explanations, while in Pasarón de la Vera the neighbors signed a petition, but a priest's sermon was enough to break their will to ask for their church back.

Ribadulla, a hamlet of 60 residents in Galicia, always held its celebrations in the old church, until it was covered by the waters of a new reservoir. The developer built a new church, the town paid for the public lighting, and the residents supplied the trees. Then the diocese of Lugo decided to register it as its own, and all hell broke loose. "Over at the bishopric they treated us as if we were ignorant peasants, but we're not stupid," says Luis García Campos, spokesman for the community.

In the midst of the battle over ownership of the church, some priests from other parishes read out a letter to the people of Ribadulla "that essentially said that if we did not give in, we would be left without Mass," says García Campos. Like a scene out of a Berlanga movie, the priests then ate their own consecrated wafers, turned out the lights and locked the door on their way out. For around three months the locals were left without religious services. The bishop took the case to court and the entire village ended up testifying. The village won, but the Church has appealed.

So who do the churches really belong to? It is necessary to consult local archives to know, and even then there is not always documentary proof. To the Church, "the peaceful possession of property for over 100 years is legally a sufficient deed of ownership to inscribe them legitimately in the Property Register."

Officially, the Church fears that the temples could end up being used for other ends than worship. But surely that fear does not extend to pelota courts, olive groves, rectories and cemeteries... or does it?

The restoration work on Navarre's cathedral was paid for with public funds before the Church registered the property.
The restoration work on Navarre's cathedral was paid for with public funds before the Church registered the property.LUIS AZANZA

United Left denounces registration "scandal"

The congressional speaker for the United Left (IU) coalition group, Gaspar Llamazares, has said it is a "scandal" that Church officials are registering thousands of properties across Spain in their organization"s name.

Llamazares said his group will try to get the Socialist government to provide information in Congress about the scope of this practice. "But we are not very optimistic about our chances, because every time we have asked the executive about any issue affecting the Church, it either takes months to answer us or simply does not respond at all."

Socialist Party sources who were consulted on the matter said that they did not have an answer yet.

IU is not surprised at the news, though. "The Catholic hierarchy feels untouchable, much more so since the Socialist government, in its quest to avoid any trouble and eliminate any public confrontation that might make them lose favor among moderate voters, did not hesitate to follow a soft policy that included substantial improvements to Church financing and shelving the Religious Freedom Law."

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