Elizabeth Nash, The Independent (London), Jan. 5, 2007
Spain’s bishops are alarmed by ambitious plans to recreate the city of Cordoba — once the heart of the ancient Islamic kingdom of al-Andalus — as a pilgrimage site for Muslims throughout Europe.
Plans include the construction of a half-size replica of Cordoba’s eighth century great mosque, according to the head of Cordoba’s Muslim Association. Funds for the project are being sought from the governments of the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, and Muslim organisations in Morocco and Egypt. Other big mosques are reportedly planned for Medina Azahara near Cordoba, Seville and Granada.
The bishops of those cities are alarmed at the construction of ostentatious mosques, fearing that the church’s waning influence may be further eclipsed by resurgent Islam financed from abroad. Up to one million Muslims are estimated to live in Spain. Many are drawn by a romantic nostalgia for the lost paradise of Al-Andalus, the caliphate that ruled Spain for more than five centuries.
Last month, Spanish Muslims reasserted their right to pray in Cordoba’s great mosque. The mosque houses within its arches a cathedral built to consolidate Catholic rule after Muslims were expelled from Spain in 1492. Muslims are forbidden to pray in the building.
Mansur Escudero, president of Spain’s Islamic Council, has challenged the current head of Spain’s Episcopal Conference, Bishop Ricardo Blazquez of Bilbao, to explain why Muslims could not pray in Cordoba’s mosque. Mr Escudero said he had been encouraged by the Pope’s act of prayer in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque on his recent visit to Turkey. “It showed that mosques are open to Christian worshippers,” he said. “Could not Muslims pray in Cordoba’s mosque?”
Bishop Blazquez replied that public collective praying was prohibited, but he supposed private or individual prayer was acceptable. Mr Escudero then announced that Muslims would henceforth return to Cordoba’s mosque to pray “in a respectful, private and individual capacity”. The bishops hit back, insisting that “Muslims cannot in any way pray in Cordoba cathedral”.
Spain’s Muslims have been long respectful towards civil and ecclesiastical authorities, but as numbers have grown they have turned to more radical leaders. An alliance of Spanish converts, pro-Moroccan and pro-Saudi leaders took control of one of Spain’s two main Islamic federations last year. Half of the new leaders are imams from Saudi-funded mosques in Madrid and Fuengirola.
Mr Escudero, an ousted moderate who nonetheless remains head of Spain’s umbrella Islamic Council, said he did not favour the construction of flamboyant mosques with foreign money. “I prefer more modest, decent buildings that are backed by Spanish local authorities,” he said, but added: “Muslims have the right to build mosques big and small wherever they like.”
Hundreds of mosques have popped up all over Spain. But churches, and many residents, complain that big, shiny mosques are more than just centres for culture and worship, and say they are funded by undemocratic countries promoting Islamic radicalism.