It was the start of one of the earliest and most brutal episodes of ethnic cleansing in Europe, so Spain is, understandably perhaps, a little reluctant to mark the occasion.
Four hundred years ago today King Philip III signed an order to expel 300,000 Moriscos–or part-Muslims–who had converted from Islam to Christianity.
Over the next five years hundreds of the exiles died as they were forced from their homes in Spain to North Africa at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.
There are no plans to mark the date officially, although the occasion is being remembered in a series of exhibitions, conferences and public debates.
The anniversary comes days after José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, the Spanish Prime Minister, met Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Prime Minister, in Istanbul to celebrate the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations, which is intended to foster friendship between the West and the Islamic world.
Some Muslim writers and Spanish and Moroccan campaigners believe that Madrid should apologise for the wrongs committed during the 17th century. Juan Goytisolo, a Spanish novelist, said:
“Official and academic Spain retires into the fortress of cautious silence, which reveals obvious discomfort. The expulsion was the first European precedent . . . of the European ethnic cleansings of the last century.”
The anniversary highlights once again the uneasy relationship which exists between modern-day Spain and its Moorish, or Muslim, past. Muslims conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century after arriving from North Africa but, centuries later, their armies were finally expelled in 1492 after the victory of the Catholic monarchs King Ferdinand of Castile and Queen Isabella of Aragon.
Hundreds of thousands of Muslims who remained in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity, but many continued with their Muslim names and ways of life, defying all attempts to create a Catholic state.
After military losses to the Protestant Dutch, King Philip signed a decree on April 9, 1609, to expel these reluctant converts, in a move he hoped would strengthen his kingdom.
Historians record the brutal conditions in which many hundreds were killed during the forced resettlement in North Africa over the next five years and Spanish society was, in fact, weakened economically and politically as a result–particularly in areas such as Valencia and Aragon, where the majority of the Muslim converts had lived.
Historians and writers have urged the Government to use the anniversary of the event to make overtures to the Islamic world. José Manuel Fajardo, a Spanish writer, said: “Mr Zapatero has an opportunity to transform one of the most tragic episodes in the history of Spain into an opportunity for a re-encounter between the West and Islam.”
However, a spokesman for the Government said: “There are no plans to mark the anniversary.”
The defeat of the Moors in 1492 and the expulsion of the Moriscos from 17th-century Spain has become a politically sensitive subject, with Osama bin Laden referring to it in repeated calls for the restoration of al-Andalus, the former Muslim kingdom in the Iberian Peninsula.