The Catholic Church Rewrites History And Angers Muslims In Spain

Cordoba's Mosque-Cathedral seen from the Miraflores Bridge
Cordoba's Mosque-Cathedral seen from the Miraflores Bridge
Sandrine Morel

CORDOBA — Back in 1984, UNESCO included Spain’s Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba on its World Heritage list. Thirty years later, the site that tourist guides describe as one of Andalusia’s architectural masterpieces — a symbol of the golden age of the Umayyad civilization and of the “concord” between religions — now represents conflict. Though the exceptional monument, also called the Mezquita, remains, the diocese in charge of it has dropped the “Mosque” part of its name, calling it simply a “Cathedral,” which has angered many.

A group of citizens sparked an intense controversy in February after they denounced “the ongoing attempts of legal, economic and symbolic appropriation from the bishop of Cordoba.” Over 200,000 people have already signed their petition on, asking that the site be called “Mosque-Cathedral” and not just “Cathedral.” They are also demanding “the legal recognition of its status as public property.”

The public has discovered how the diocese of Cordoba has tried to erase the monument’s Muslim history and establish its authority over the site. In 2006, it covertly registered the monument in its name. “If the administration doesn’t oppose it, it will become the Church’s property in 2016,” explains Antonio Manuel Rodriguez, law professor at the University of Cordoba and spokesman for the outraged citizen group. “But our main concern is the escalation of the denominational management of the site,” he adds.

A diocese leaflet printed in 2009 described the mosque as an “islamic intervention” after the destruction of a Visigothic church during the 6th century — St Vincent’s basilica — by “Muslim dominants.” The magnificent forest of columns, famous around the world, is mentioned only once and as an “inconvenience” to “celebrate liturgy.” The leaflet, however, insists on the “Christian transformation,” which destroyed the center of the mosque to build the heart of the cathedral, the artistic interest of which is minor.

“It’s unbelievable,” says historian Bernard Vincent, who is dumbfounded after reading the leaflet. “The mosque is presented as no more than a blip in an otherwise entirely Christian site that dates almost as far back as Ancient Rome. It’s as if Muslims had done nothing more than simply patching up something that already existed. Those aren’t mistakes but rather interpretations which are evidence of a campaign to claim total control over the Mosque-Cathedral,” he explains.

The diocese believes that the Mosque-Cathedral has been its property since 1236 and the Reconquista led by Ferdinand the Third of Castile, at which point the site was dedicated to Catholic cult. “Until 1998, the Church was not allowed to register its property,” says diocese spokesman Pablo Garzon. When a new law changed that, it was registered, he says. “The difference here is that temple is very controversial.”

The young priest describes the fact that “Muslims have tried to pray” there. But for the Church, letting people kneel in front of the magnificent apse covered in golden mosaics is simply out of the question. The security guards are quick to stop those who try.

Prohibiting Muslims

In 2006, the former president of Cordoba’s Muslim community, Mandur Escudero, sent a letter to the Pope asking that Muslims be permitted to pray there. To demonstrate to the world that it was impossible for him to do so, he then prayed outside the Mezquita in the middle of the street.

Four years later, a group of Muslims from Austria attempted to pray inside the Mosque-Cathedral, which sparked clashes with security guards. Soon after, the new and very conservative Bishop Demetrio Fernandez asked city officials to change the road signs to the monument, replacing the name “Mosque-Cathedral” with just “Cathedral.”

“We’re not a war against the word ‘mosque’, except when it’s used in an exclusive manner,” argues Pablo Garzon, the diocese spokesman. “But the workers are being put under intense pressure, and we need to react.”

This “pressure” from the Muslim community has become the perfect excuse for the symbolic disappearance of Cordoba’s mosque. In the 1980s and 1990s, the diocese leaflet was entitled “The Mosque-Cathedral,” but by 1998, it had already been renamed “The Holy Cathedral Church,” with the subtitle reading, “former mosque of Cordoba.” Now, the monument visited by 1.4 million tourists every year is just a cathedral.

“We respect that the church is used for liturgy,” says Antonio Manuel Rodriguez, the citizen group spokeman. “But there must be a transparent, public and non-confessional administration.”

Former UNESCO Director-General Federico Mayor Zaragoza warns that “UNESCO could declare the monument an endangered cultural site.” Victor Fernandez Salinas, secretary-general of the Spanish Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, denounces what he sees as a form of “fundamentalism” seeking to “erase the traces of the past.”

He observes that over the past few years, “The sites that meant more to the Muslims were occupied with elements that reinforced Catholicism.” At the end of 2012, a massive statue of Saint John of Ávila (remembered as the “Apostle of Andalusia”) was erected nearby.

Rewriting history

The sound and light show that is offered to nighttime visitors has also exacerbated the tensions. Bankrolled by the city but written by the Church after the bishop declared in 2008 that he would “never accept that the vision of Arab knights be projected on the wall,” the show presents a biased description of the mosque, insisting on the Byzantine influence and the Christian prisoners used to build it.

“After more than five centuries, the Cross of Jesus Christ rises once again,” the first part concludes, as grandiose music plays in the background. More than half of the show is then dedicated to a precise description of the choir built between the 16th and the 18th century.

And yet history tells another story. Charles V, who had authorized the cathedral nave’s construction after an argument between the city’s officials, later expressed his remorse: “I did not know what it was, for I would not have allowed the ancient to be changed,” he said. “They have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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