Manu Fernandez/AP

Córdoba controversy: Historic Mosque-Cathedral mired in cultural dispute

In Spain, a dispute breaks out over a medieval Islamic place of worship turned Catholic church

CÓRDOBA, Spain – Inside Córdoba’s Mosque-Cathedral, a young woman in a Muslim headscarf is taking a hurried selfie in front of the monument’s Catholic altar. Just a few yards away, in the building’s Muslim section, some European tourists are admiring a set of Islamic arches.

It’s a scene that is reminiscent of this southern Spanish city’s celebrated past, the kind of multiculturalism that made it a world-renowned symbol of knowledge and religious coexistence in medieval times.

“This place belongs to Muslims and Christians,” says Muhammad Anggia Muchtar, a Muslim university lecturer from Indonesia who is visiting as part of a two-week trip around Europe.

“Here, people from different religions socialized in harmony and lived in peace,” he says, adding that the Mosque-Cathedral preserves history and that "when you know your history, you know your roots.”

On a hot May afternoon, he is sitting in the shade in the monument’s inner courtyard, a large, tranquil space filled with orange trees and birdsong. But despite this calm scene, the Mosque-Cathedral is currently the focus of a fierce dispute pitting local activists against the Catholic Church and casting a shadow over Córdoba’s legacy of religious tolerance. It has even become a hot-button issue in local elections here amid accusations that the Mosque-Cathedral’s Islamic past is being airbrushed out of history.

Muhammad is one of around 1.5 million people who visit the monument each year from around the world, drawn by its unique history. Standing on the site of Visigoth ruins, its construction began in 785, at the start of several centuries of North African Muslim presence in Spain and Portugal. By the 10th century, the Great Mosque had helped Córdoba become a hugely influential hub of learning. It was also notable for the fact that it was the home to Catholic and Jewish communities, who were tolerated by the majority Muslim population.

‘This place belongs to Muslims and Christians. Here, people from different religions socialized in harmony and lived in peace.’

Muhammad Anggia Muchtar

Indonesian university lecturer

When Christians re-conquered Córdoba, they built a Catholic cathedral, completed in 1236 in the heart of the Great Mosque. Still towering over the picturesque, narrow streets of central Córdoba, the entire building has since then been administered by the local Church authorities and only Christian worship is allowed inside.

In 1984, UNESCO awarded the monument and its surrounding neighborhood World Heritage Site status, describing the Great Mosque as “an irreplaceable testimony of the Caliphate of Córdoba and […] the most emblematic monument of Islamic religious architecture.”

But recently, many people in Córdoba are dismayed at what they see as the Catholic Church’s attempted appropriation of the monument.

Two decades ago, it was described as the “Mosque-Cathedral” in official literature and tourist brochures, a term that acknowledged its shared heritage. In 1998, the Catholic authorities changed that to the “Cathedral (former Mosque)” and since 2010 it has been simply “Córdoba Cathedral.”

“They have tried to change the history of the monument, the name of the monument and to appropriate the monument’s symbols,” says Miguel Santiago, a local high school teacher who heads a grassroots association, La Plataforma Mezquita-Catedral, patrimonio de tod@s (The Mosque-Cathedral, a heritage for all), which has been campaigning against the changes since early 2014.

“The really fundamental thing about the monument is its Islamic-Andalusian art, but the literature describes this as if it were merely an Islamic intervention.”

Tourist brochures devote relatively little space to the monument’s Islamic period, which they do indeed describe as an “intervention”. One of the periods of Islamic construction is summarized as “an ostentatious display of power, though … not very original”.

But the platform is not just campaigning against the use of language. It also says the Catholic Church has taken the Mosque-Cathedral out of public hands by taking advantage of a loophole in property legislation and registering itself as the sole owner of the building.

Santiago (who describes himself as a Catholic) and his fellow campaigners have gathered nearly 400,000 signatures to “save the Córdoba Mosque” on Signatories include British architect Norman Foster and acclaimed Spanish novelist, Juan Goytisolo.

The issue has also entered the domestic political arena. In the campaign ahead of May 24 municipal elections, four leading candidates for mayor of Córdoba debated the status of the Mosque-Cathedral. Of the main parties, only the conservative Popular Party, which governs Spain and Córdoba and has close links to the Catholic Church, was absent.

All four candidates criticized the Church’s actions, with the most outspoken, Rafael Velazquez, of the left-leaning Podemos party, drawing parallels with George Orwell’s "1984" as he lambasted the “rewriting of history” in Córdoba.

Also mentioned in the debate was the Mosque-Cathedral’s brief name change on Google Maps last November, when it mysteriously became simply “Córdoba Cathedral,” before being swiftly changed back to “Córdoba Mosque-Cathedral” after a public outcry. The Church denies any knowledge of the glitch, while La Plataforma Mezquita-Catedral suspects it was deliberately engineered.

But according to the Catholic Church, the entire controversy has been whipped up artificially and with no foundation. In his office opposite the site, the canon of the holy Cathedral of Córdoba, José Juan Jiménez, says the name change is not important, as his parishioners tend to describe the building as both “the cathedral” and “the mosque” anyway.

“We haven’t had any confrontation over religious issues here since the [Christian] re-conquest,” he says, adding that the Church fully respects the building’s Muslim heritage.

Jiménez attributes the campaign against the Church’s actions to anti-Catholic feeling. “In Spain, in the democratic period there have been movements, always on the political left, which are hostile to everything the Church represents,” he says.

As for the Church’s alleged appropriation of the monument as its own property, Jiménez insists that it has been the owner since the 13th century, and that all it is doing now is registering itself as such.

But while he plays down the causes of the furor, he admits its effects could be damaging – to tourist revenues, but also to the city’s broader image.

“This could lead to a split, or give the impression that the peaceful coexistence between religions has been broken,” he says.

‘We haven’t had any confrontation over religious issues here since the [Christian] re-conquest.’

José Juan Jiménez

canon, holy cathedral of Córdoba

Arguably, that coexistence is already showing signs of strain, with the debate about the Mosque-Cathedral spilling over into the broader issue of Spain’s relationship with its Islamic past and its modern-day Muslim community.

In December 2014, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO), with 52 member states, described the name change as “an attempt to obliterate the landmarks of Islamic history in Andalusia and a provocation for Muslims around the world, especially Muslims of Spain.”

In March, a small right-wing party, Vox, published online a faux TV news report imagining Córdoba in 2018, with the Mosque-Cathedral having been expropriated by left-wing politicians and ceded to Muslims for their exclusive use.

“In the next few years, it is estimated that more than two million Muslims could move to Córdoba and other cities in Andalusia in order to reconnect with their past and their culture,” says a bogus woman news reporter, wearing a headscarf.

“Do you want a future like that?” the video asks at the end.

Enrique Rubio, a Córdoba-based Vox politician, says his party is determined that the Mezquita-Cathedral should remain Catholic and that the ongoing polemic “is driven by political motives.” He adds: “There are those who say there could be Islamic states behind all this – Iran or Saudi Arabia, for example.”

This kind of defensiveness over the monument on the part of Catholics is frequently echoed on Internet forums and social networks and seems to have been further fueled by the statements of some extremist groups. Both Al-Qaeda and ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS) have repeatedly called for Al-Andalus, the medieval name for Spain and Portugal when they were under Islamic control, to be reclaimed. Photos posted on social networks recently showed the ISIL flag being held up in front of several landmarks from Spain’s Islamic past.

“In spite of the claims made by ISIS or other groups, none of which represent Muslims as a whole in Spain, I think there’s virtually no one in Spain who is demanding that the Córdoba Mosque be returned to Muslims,” says Laure Rodriguez Quiroga, of Red Musulmana, an organization which represents Spanish Muslim women.

The often furious debate surrounding the Mosque-Cathedral, she says, reflects a worrisome rise in “Islamophobic attitudes” in general across Spain.

What both sides of this argument cannot deny is that while the monument’s beauty still draws visitors from around the world, its luster as an example of religious coexistence has been tarnished.

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