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Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Catholic World News News Feature

A Cathedral, a Mosque, or Both? June 01, 2004

From the AsiaNews Service

An official request to designate the Roman Catholic cathedral in Cordoba as the first church in the world where Christians and Muslims can pray together has been made to the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue. Mansur Escudero, secretary general of the Spanish Islamic Council, made that announcement to that the Europe Press Agency on April 11, opening a new episode in a decades-old discussion about the ownership and use of Cordoba’s cathedral.

“The request was very well received” at the Vatican, Excudero reported. [The head of the Pontifical Council to which the request was directed had a somewhat different perspective; see the accompanying sidebar.] Zakarias Maza, director of the Taqwa mosque in nearby Granada, expressed the hopes of Spain’s Muslims:

We hope the Vatican will give a sign that it has a vision of openness and dialogue… Cordoba has been a symbol of the union of three cultures for centuries. Even now, Jews and Muslims live together with Christians in the neighborhood around the mosque.

The magnificent ancient building, which was first a mosque and now the cathedral of Cordoba, is one of the world’s finest jewels of art, begun in the 8th century and renovated on several occasions. After the conquest of Cordoba by Ferdinand III in 1236, the mosque was consecrated as a cathedral.

The most important part of the structure, from the perspective of would-be Muslim worshippers, is the mihrab, the recess in the southeastern wall that indicates the direction of Mecca. The mihrab of the old Cordoba mosque is now on the outside of the cathedral itself, which would make it possible for Muslims to worship without disturbing the ceremonies inside. With the increase in the number of Spanish converts to Islam, the present-day mosque in Cordoba is too small for the Muslim community, which numbers 500 members and is steadily growing. Consequently, the cathedral has been the object of repeated demands on the part of the Muslim community.

The political administrators of Cordoba’s city hall, which is currently in the hands of the Left United (IU) and Spanish Socialist parties, supports the initiative. City officials had even prepared a motion of support for the demand that the Islamic Council presented first to the Pontifical Council, and more recently to Bishop Juan José Asenjo Pelegrino. However, the polemics on the issue deepened on April 15, when Cordoba’s Mayor Rose Aguilar, an IU leader who is believed to support the Muslims’ plan, voiced her belief that now is not the right time for political leaders to become involved in the dispute. She warned that a proposal of this sort should be advanced by the Muslim group alone, without any influence applied by city hall or any municipal group. Mayor Aguilar added—in an apparent reference to the religious tensions that have grown in Spain since March 11—that the members of her city council are “serious people who know how to read the times in which we are living.” Nevertheless, in statements to the press, a number of other city officials from the governing coalition indicated their continued sympathy for the Muslim initiative, seeing it as a possible step toward inter-religious dialogue. Antonio Hurtado, a local Socialist spokesman, said: “We hope to see Cordoba become a place for the meeting of faiths.”

This is not the first time that Muslims in Cordoba have submitted a request for the use of the cathedral. The building has always been seen by local Muslims as a place of key historic importance, and officials have regularly pointed to the cathedral—and to Cordoba at large—as an ideal place for inter-religious conferences and dialogue.

Yet some of Spain’s Catholics have been angered by the proposal that Muslims share their worship space. “Will Christians be able to pray in the mosques of Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iran, or Kuwait?” one Catholic demanded on a religious web site.

RAISING THE STAKES To date, Cordoba’s Bishop Pelegrino has kept his silence regarding the Muslims’ latest proposal. In fact over the years a studied silence has been the habitual response of ecclesiastical authorities to such requests—punctuated occasionally by an explicit negative answer. The bishop affirmed only that the diocese “must be very prudent” in answering the petition from the Islamic Congress, and cautioned that the Muslim leaders should not hope for an immediate reply.

At least one leading Vatican official has been more direct than Bishop Pelegrino in responding to the Islamic Group. In an interview with AsiaNews, the president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue said that the Muslims’ request was “problematic,” and could not be granted. Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald advised Cordoba’s Muslims to “accept history,” rather than seeking to regain the building they had long ago lost, or “take revenge” on the Church. The archbishop observed that Christians have not sought to reclaim former Christian church buildings in the Middle East that have fallen under Islamic jurisdiction. [See sidebar.]

Meanwhile, the security personnel of the cathedral have been keeping watch attentively, so that no Muslim makes a point of being observed praying inside the cathedral—a tactic that Islamic activists have used occasionally in the past. On March 3, with Sunday Mass barely concluded, participants in the Third International Congress of Muslim Women attempted to offer a communal prayer before the mihrab. They were gently turned aside by security personnel. Some Muslims deny that they have need to seek permission from Rome or from diocesan authorities to worship in a Catholic cathedral in Cordoba—in a city which had been the heart of Moorish Spain in the 8th century, and in a church which once had been one of Islam’s holiest mosques. “We don’t need to ask for the Vatican’s intercession, since it is a historical site,” Munir al Musiri of the Islamic Cultural Center of Madrid (ICCM) told IslamOnline. “This is nonsense, I myself have prayed there many times.”

Musiri states that he was unaware of the existence of a national Islamic group in Spain other than his ICCM. Questioning the authenticity of the Spanish Islamic Council, he said that he believes the request to use the cathedral was brought forward by individuals who “were in no position to speak for the entire Muslim community in Spain.” Fearing that this type of individual initiative would spark a certain “Islamophobia” in today’s sensitive climate, Musiri cautioned, “It will play well into the hands of some people and the Western media—which could add fuel to the fire, and say Muslims want to re-conquer Al-Andalus (Spain).”

QUESTIONS OF IDENTITY

One member the Spanish Islamic Council, Isabel Romero, insisted that such fears would be misplaced. “In no way is this request about reclaiming our right, far less about any kind of reconquest,” she told a local newspaper. “Instead, we want to give our support to the universal character of this building.”

Father Samir Khalil, one of the world’s leading experts on the Islamic and Arabic world, disagrees. Father Khalil—a Catholic priest of Egyptian origin, who divides his time between teaching assignments at St. Joseph’s University in Beirut and the Pontifical Institute of Oriental Studies in Rome—believes that the Islamic demand for the use of Cordoba’s cathedral is a clear sign of a broader design to “reconquer” Europe. He confidently states that “many Spanish Muslims have the idea of reconquering Europe. That desire, he reports, was “reaffirmed months ago by the imam of Granada, at the cornerstone ceremony for a new mosque—in front of the King of Spain!”

If all of the world’s religious communities had a presumptive right to use the buildings originally designed as their own houses of worship, Father Samir points out that Christians would have a claim on “hundreds” of churches in the Islamic world that have been converted into mosques, or now serve some other non-religious purpose. “Just think of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Omayyad mosque in Damascus, and the Ibn Tulum mosque in Cairo—built on the remains of destroyed churches,” he said.

Father Samir makes the additional observation that the current debate in Cordoba shows not only the ambition of Islamic activists, but also the weakness of European identity—a weakness that could encourage further probes by militant Islam. In Cordoba, he observes, the Islamic demand for use of the cathedral is not surprising, but “the support given by certain Spanish government leaders in the city makes it all the more manifest just how much Europe has lost its identity.”

While some Spanish Muslims deny any plan for reconquest, others are quite open in voicing such ambitions. Recently one prominent Spanish Muslim, Abderrahman Muhammad Manan, wrote that the ancient mosque in Cordoba should be “freed,” and that, “We Muslims cannot stand behind, saying that Islam is not stones or monuments.” Spain is properly Islamic territory, he argued, and to give up the goal of reconquest is to abandon the ideal of Islam. Muslims, he said, should not accept the legitimacy of a Spanish culture that “is the remembrance of a colonization, of a genocide, of an expulsion.”

What is certain, amid the welter of competing statements and apparent contradictions, is that the debate over the use of the Cordoba cathedral reached its peak just as Spain observed the passage of one month since the March 11 terrorist attack on Madrid. Interestingly, after several suspects implicated in that bombing then blew themselves up to evade arrest, police found a videotape on which one of the suspects plainly stated, “You know, the Spanish crusade against the Muslims, the expulsion from Al-Andalus… that was not so long ago...”

It is not coincidental that this debate is taking place in a city with a strong Islamic cultural presence (the single Islamic university in Spain is located in Cordoba, and the International Islamic Internet Center is found in the nearby town of Almodóvar del Rio), a city which still evokes memories of past splendor for some people in the Muslim world. But beyond Cordoba, the influence of 20,000 recent Spanish converts to Islam makes the questions surrounding Cordoba’s cathedral a key national issue.

For most Muslim immigrants living in Spain, the questions take on a very different perspective. Rather than pressing the case to regain ancient sites, immigrant Muslims are more concerned with “rebuilding relations with Spaniards and making sure our members can live as normally as possible,” according to Kamal Rahmouni, spokesman for a Moroccan community group. Rahmouni called for a commission to supervise the imams who guide the Islamic communities at the 200 mosques in Spain. He indicated that many, if not most, of Spain’s mosques are financed by Saudi Arabian funds, which generally promote a radical Wahhabi form of Islam. The Moroccan Muslim leader said: “Ninety percent of Spain’s 500,000 Muslims are from Morocco, not from Saudi Arabia. We need to teach a more moderate form of Islam that reflects that fact.”

[AUTHOR ID] The AsiaNews Service, a Catholic agency with headquarters in Rome, operates an internet site (www.asianews.it) that specializes in coverage of Asia, the Middle East, and the world of Islam.

[SIDEBAR HEAD] “Accept History”

[SIDEBAR SUBHEAD] The president of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue says that a Catholic church cannot be used for Muslim prayer services.

[SIDEBAR BYLINE] Interview by Father Bernardo Cervellera

[SIDEBAR PULLQUOTE] If it is a Catholic chapel, with the Blessed Sacrament inside, it should not be used to for prayer services of another religious tradition.

[TEXT]

Your Excellency, Cordoba’s Muslims say they’ve forwarded a request to the Vatican to use the city’s Cathedral as a mosque. Is this true?

Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald: Last March our Council, together with the World Islamic Call Society, based in Libya and Tripoli, organized talks on the formation of priests and imams. There were Spanish representatives in the Islamic delegation. During the convention, Mansur Escudero of Cordoba presented a request in Spanish, with a letter written by the mayor of Cordoba addressed to the head of the Muslim delegation, Dr. Sherif, and mentioned it was their wish to share the use of the cathedral. But he (Sherif) did not take it into consideration. And we told Dr. Sherif that the issue was not one of the topics up for discussion at the convention. At the last session, when the convention’s final statement was being discussed, Escudero again raised the Cordoba problem. And I responded by saying that the use of the cathedral was the responsibility of the local church and bishop.

Is it possible for the cathedral to be used by Muslim faithful?

Fitzgerald: A general reflection is needed here. Just as there are monumental buildings in Cordoba, there are also others around the world which currently have a use different from that of the original—like the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul [originally a Byzantine cathedral], which is now an Islamic museum, despite pressure put on by some Muslims to use it again as a mosque. The Holy Father visited the Omayyad Mosque in Damascus [also originally a Byzantine church], praying in front of the tomb of St. John the Baptist. But he did not ask to celebrate Mass in the mosque.

It is difficult to have Christians and Muslims living together, and sharing a common civic and religious life, if they are always driven by the desire to go back in time or take some form of vengeance. One has to accept history and move forward.

The shared use of a building by various churches is problematic. There are spaces dedicated to this purpose, for example, in airports. But they are not churches or mosques. They are interfaith spaces, capable of being used by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and persons of other faiths. But this is based on a type of agreement to allow for their shared use. Yet this is not the reality in Cordoba, where the building belongs to a specific community.

Isn’t it true that when Muslims pray in a particular place, in their view that place immediately becomes Dar al Islam—the land of Islam, and their property?

Fitzgerald: No, not always. Muslims have prayed even inside the Vatican, in this very building, but they do not lay claim to it. A street where a Muslim kneels down to pray does not become part of the Islamic community.

Government authorities in Cordoba suggest that the Church allow the cathedral to be used also by Muslims—thus respecting, they say, “the building’s universal value” and showing a Catholic Church which is “open and dialogical.” What do you think?

Fitzgerald: Spain’s government authorities are trying to please all sectors of society. But perhaps they do not have the necessary theological sensitivity to understand the Church’s position. We, too, want to live in peace with persons of other religions. However, we don’t want to be pushed, manipulated, and forced to go against the very rules of our faith.

Governments frequently have problems making it possible for people of different backgrounds and beliefs to work together and to live together without tension. In the future could there be a shared use of such buildings and structures?

Fitzgerald: As I already said, currently there are places of worship in airports. There’s also such a need in prisons. In many jails there are Muslims who want to pray and need a place in which they can do so. Wherever there is a Christian church, it makes sense to keep using it as it was intended originally, and not as a common worship space. Wherever there is no space for worship, state authorities could also think about creating a shared space.

Under which circumstances should a church not be used as a mosque?

Fitzgerald: If it is a Catholic chapel, with the Blessed Sacrament inside, it should not be used for prayer services of another religious tradition.

In the Muslims’ argument for using Cordoba’s cathedral as a mosque, some people see another attempt to allow for the “Islamic Invasion” of Europe. What’s your opinion?

Fitzgerald: There are some Muslims who see Europe in major decline and have the goal and aspiration to Islamicize Europe. For them Islam is the answer to a revival of religion. They are not the majority, but certainly they exist. On the other hand, there are some Muslims who simply want to live together with people of other faiths, in a way that is compatible with the laws and traditions of the country in which they live.

[AUTHOR ID] Father Bernardo Cervellera is director of AsiaNews.