Battle for the Mosque of Córdoba

Andalusian government disputes bishopric’s ownership, control and management of the building, a symbol of coexistence between civilizations

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Visitors inside the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.
Visitors inside the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.GARCÍA CORDERO

The more than 22,000 square meters of the Mosque of Córdoba, one of the world's foremost historic buildings and a symbol of peaceful coexistence between civilizations, have been the scene of centuries of tension between those who wished to preserve this monument of Andalusí (Spanish Muslim) art, and those who wanted it to have a purely Catholic appearance.

The controversy has deepened in recent years as the bishopric of Córdoba gradually squeezed out the Muslim presence in the equation (going so far as to remove the term "mosque" from leaflets and posters). In 2013 this led to an initiative by a group of citizens, including teachers, journalists and lawyers, to create a civic platform against the Church's iron grip on the site. In a manifesto that has attracted more than 80,000 signatures on the website Change.org, the Platform Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba: Everyone's Heritage demands that the ownership and management of the building be public, so it will cease to be an instrument at the service of the Catholic Church. These civic intentions have now received official recognition: the regional government announced that it has commissioned a report to determine whether it is empowered to assume the management and ownership of this jewel of Spanish Muslim architecture.

Ecclesiastical real estate operators


A modification of the mortgage law, passed during the rightist government of José María Aznar, gave each bishop a sort of notarial power, and made the Catholic Church a major real estate concern. With only the bishop's word to back him, a Church representative could go to any property registry and inscribe in the Church's name unregistered properties of any sort, which might mean isolated country chapels, priestly residences, cemeteries, vacant tracts of land and many more. After 2003, the Church experienced a real estate boom, a sort of reverse version of the massive selling-off of Church lands in the early 19th century.

In money matters, the Church has a highly decentralized organization, unaccustomed to rendering accounts even to the pope, so it is impossible to determine exactly what economic effects this process of appropriation has produced. In some dioceses, the administrators have obtained huge profits and operated financial funds. Some have hired building surveyors to organize the massive registry of properties. Associations such as Secular Europe and the Platform in Defense of the Heritage of Navarre have struggled against this phenomenon, amid general disinterest. In Navarre alone, where the neighborhood defense movement has been most active, more than 1,000 municipalities have been affected by the voracity of the Church.

The greed for land knows no limits, even for the Church, and the crowning glory is the case of the Mosque of Córdoba, which was registered in 2006. The fact did not become known until 2009 (three years of silence is also an advantage in terms of making the registration irreversible) when it was revealed thanks to the suspicions of a well-known Spanish Muslim. For a 30-euro fee, the Church assumed ownership of the Mosque, and everything that means: the income from the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit it (not taxable, since the entry fee is a "donation") and all the investments made by public institutions in the restoration and maintenance of the monument. For reasons that no one has explained, the regional government has taken five years to react.

The platform fears that, if the clergy continues to impose an exclusively religious usage on the Mosque, this may lead to revocation of its World Heritage Site status, awarded by Unesco 30 years ago. This title reflected not only its artistic and architectural singularity, but also the building's symbolic character as an example of Córdoba's identification with the principle of concord between beliefs and civilizations.

On the other hand, the bishopric of Córdoba has intensified its evangelizing function even during tourist visits, especially since 2006 when, for 30 euros, it registered the building as its property under a law passed by the Aznar government. The best example of this attitude is seen during the night visits to the Mosque, which began in 2010 after more than five years of negotiation between City Hall and the Church. An initial project, more historical and audiovisual in orientation, was ruled out due to pressure from the clergy; and the left-leaning municipal government yielded to the religious demands. As a result, visitors on night tours, which were intended to attract believers and non-believers alike, are treated to a description of history in which the centuries of Spanish Muslim rule are buried under Catholic rhetoric.

Nor does the Church relax its control by day. "There are security guards watching all over the place, with strict instructions," says Miguel Santiago, a lay Christian and spokesman for the platform. About a year ago, eight young Austrian Muslims were acquitted by a judge in Córdoba of responsibility for an altercation that took place in 2010 when they were praying in front of the Qibla wall, which the Church has forbidden. The interference of the security guards led to a fight and to the arrest of the tourists.

Santiago complains that the bishopric uses the monument as if it were private property. "The control of tour guides is tight, and warnings are given to any citizen who attempts to show the monument to others."

Visitors who are not aware of this situation are often surprised to find that, on entering the Mosque, there are hardly any references to Islam to be found. "Everything says Cathedral — the posters, the tickets, everything," says Alicia, a young woman from Huelva. "It's a pity."

In its manifesto, the platform lays out four chief demands: Firstly, that the term Cathedral cease to be used exclusively in reference to the monument and that the term Mosque-Cathedral, approved by the City Council in 1994, be used instead. Secondly, it demands legal recognition of its public ownership. Then it calls for public, transparent management, along the lines of the trust that manages the Alhambra. Lastly, it proposes that a Good Practices Code be written up, to prevent actions damaging to the monument's image.

Apart from the more than 80,000 signatures, the manifesto has attracted support from many intellectuals, such as the writers Eduardo Galeano, Antonio Gala and José Manuel Caballero Bonald; the ex-director of Unesco, Federico Mayor Zaragoza, the film director Benito Zambrano, the theologian Juan José Tamayo and the flamenco guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar.

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