An age-old battle has been revived in Spain, in Córdoba, to be exact, between the cristianos and the moros. Ever since Mansur Escudero, president of the Islamic Board, asked the Catholic hierarchy permission to allow Muslims to perform their individual prayers in the famous Mezquita de Córdoba, a war of words has followed, as evident in the press and in internet forums.
This architectural jewel, which represents for many the glories of the period of Muslim rule in Spain called Al-Andalus, has been a Catholic church since the 13th century. Construction of the mosque lasted over two centuries, commencing in 784 A.D., and the image of its giant red & white horseshoe arches and over 1,000 columns are familiar to centuries of lovers of art and architecture.
On Christmas Day, the Islamic Board sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI asking his permission to allow Muslim prayers alongside the Christians (and the tourists, who no doubt outnumber the faithful on any given day), as a model of tolerance and a way to foster interfaith dialogue. “Do not fear,” the letter read, “together we can show the violent, the intolerant, the anti-Semites, the Islam-phobes and also those who believe that only Islam has a right to remain in the world, that prayer is the strongest weapon imaginable.” Calling upon the image of the Pope praying shoulder to shoulder in the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Escudero stressed that rather than an attempt to reconquer the mosque, they seek to restore “the spirit of Al Andalus,” when Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in relative harmony.
At the end of January, Escudero held a symbolic prayer at the door of the temple, which lasted five minutes and ended with his placing some white roses at the entrance. A supporter, Antonio Cutanda, writer and president of the Avalon Foundation, subsequently asked him to withdraw his petition. Cutanda, a supporter of peaceful coexistence between races and religions, expressed his sadness over the Catholic leaders’ absolute refusal to participate in a dialogue with the Muslim group: “There is nothing wrong with a dialogue between them, we should require religious leaders to also build a culture of peace…We have to eliminate radicalisms, tolerance is not enough: we must build respect.”
Escudero’s prayer was met by a small group of ultra right neo-Nazi’s, who view Escudero's request as evidence that Muslims are preparing an attempt to reconquer the power they lost several centuries ago, to regain the glories of Al-Andalus. Escudero and Cutanda stress that the Islamic group advocates non-violence and respect for women, and in no way supports any idea of reconquering the lands lost back in the 500 years ago.
These battles over religious sites are not new, and go back to the beginning of time. The same year that King Ferdinand III conquered the city, the mosque was reconsecrated a Christian church (not unlike the Hajia Sophia which was consecrated a mosque the day the Ottomans entered the city). There are buildings throughout the Iberian Peninsula and beyond that have been synagogues, mosques and churches in a musical-chairs type of rotation, depending on the powers at the time. When visiting the mosque/cathedral (whatever you want to call it...) the architectural tragedy of these conversions is evident in the nave, built in the 16th century, which even the King, Carlos V, recognized “destroyed something unique in the world.”
In a previous post, I mentioned the incredibly intricate replica of this amazing mosque in the virtual universe of Second Life, and the creepy parallel world of conflicts and religious bias that reared its ugly head there. I’m happy to report that the mosque is once again open in Second Life, where anyone Muslim, Jew, Christian or furry headed avatar with a tail, can pray.
Inshallah I’ll be standing under these same arches in a little over a month when I travel to Spain. No doubt the rebel in me will remain quiet, but I can assure you that, faced with such a monumental and mystical center of Islamic history, I will certainly, and quietly, say a prayer, for all of us.