The Mezquita, or Great Mosque of Córdoba, was for centuries a symbol of diversity and tolerance in the southern Spanish city and has long been one of Europe’s most admired historical monuments.
But recently, disagreements over its management and efforts by the Catholic Church to take it out of public hands have made it the subject of a fierce dispute.
Sitting on the shore of the Guadalquivir river, the Mezquita has long been revered not just as a remarkable piece of architecture, but also one with a unique history.
The caliph of Damascus constructed the huge mosque on top of a Visigothic church in the eighth century, ushering in a period of intense intellectual and cultural activity in Córdoba.
When Christian forces reconquered the city in the 13th century, they built a cathedral in the centre of the mosque as a symbol of the restoration of the Catholic faith.
Today, visitors can wander through dozens of the mosque’s horseshoe arches before reaching the cathedral, where Mass is still held. Only Christians are allowed to use the cathedral-mosque as a place of worship.
However, it has emerged that the local archbishopric is in the process of registering itself as the owner of the entire building – which is public property – a move that will be irreversible by 2016. Many in the city believe this is part of an effort by the Córdoba Catholic authorities to suppress the monument’s Islamic identity.
“The Mezquita is a global symbol of the meeting of cultures and today more than ever the world needs symbols like this,” said Antonio Manuel Rodríguez, a professor of civil law at the University of Córdoba.
He sparked a furore recently when, during a conference, he accused the Córdoba archbishopric of jeopardising this symbolism by attempting to appropriate the property.
Prof Rodríguez said a loophole in land ownership laws dating from the dictatorship of Francisco Franco was being exploited and that the archbishopric was “administrating the monument in an abusive way”.
He warned that the historic centre of Córdoba even risked losing its status as a Unesco World Heritage Site if the “Christianisation” of the Mezquita continued.
Concern among Muslims
The prospect of the building, which is still an important Islamic symbol around the world, becoming the property of the Catholic Church has also upset Muslims.
“It’s a historical heritage belonging to all Spaniards,” said Isabel Romero, director of the Islamic Junta, which represents Muslims in Spain. “It’s very strange that it should pass into private hands.”
Ms Romero said this was the latest of many efforts by the church, which manages the Mezquita, to eliminate the building’s Muslim identity.
In 2010, the archbishop of Córdoba, Demetrio Fernández, publicly called for the word “mosque” to be removed from tourist-related references to the building, “to avoid confusing visitors”, a request that has been obeyed.
Tourism brochures describe it as “Córdoba Cathedral”.
Its website address contains the word “cathedral”, but not the word “mosque”.
“Any attempt to wipe out the identity of the Mezquita is an attack on us Muslims,” Ms Romero said.
The Córdoba archbishop’s office would not comment on the issue when contacted by The Irish Times, nor would the Mezquita staff themselves.
However, Ángel Luis González (20), a practising Catholic from the city who regularly takes Mass in the building, said it made sense for the church to take control of the building, “because it spent more time as a cathedral than as a mosque”.
“I call it a ‘cathedral’ because I’m a Catholic and I pray in a cathedral, not in a mosque,” he said.
Mr González attributed the controversy to an attempt by the extreme left to stir up hostility against the church.
“The church is being persecuted in Spain – you just have to see the reaction to the new abortion reform,” he added.
The Catholic Church supports the conservative government’s attempts to make abortion less accessible for women, a move that faces stiff resistance.
Beacon of tolerance
All of this is a far cry from the period when Córdoba was a beacon of multi-faith tolerance, with Muslims living peacefully alongside Jews and Christians.
Yet the Mezquita has seen controversy before.
In 2010, two Austrian Muslims were arrested there after grappling with security guards who had stopped them from praying.
In the early 1970s, Franco considered a plan to “transplant” the cathedral brick by brick to another city, reportedly with financing from the Saudi royal family, to separate the Catholic and Muslim temples.
The archbishop of Córdoba at the time vetoed the project.