The Great Mosque of Cordoba can be seen as a symbol of the many layers of Spanish history and of all the peoples that carved this nation. After the Muslim conquest of the Spanish kingdoms, Abderraman I ordered the construction of a mosque on the site of a Visigothic church (which was itself built over a Roman temple). When Cordoba fell back into Christian possession in the thirteenth century, it was turned back into a church.
Earlier this week, the president of the Islamic Association of Spain, Mansur Escudero, wrote a letter to Pope Benedict XVI requesting that Muslims be allowed to pray in front of the mihrab* of the great mosque, alongside Catholics. Escudero alleged that the shared use of the building would help bridge relations between the two groups and would follow the example set by the recent visit by the pope to the Hagia Sophia in Turkey. The bishop of Cordoba quickly issued a press release denying the request saying it would only cause “confusion” among the faithful. His exact words are interesting: “sólo generaría confusión en los fieles, dando pie al indiferentismo religioso”.
What does he mean by “indiferentismo religioso”? That people wouldn’t be able to tell the two religions apart? Well, maybe stressing the things we have in common wouldn’t be so bad. But god-forbid we make a muslim seem less alien to a christian… That would be too revolutionary.
I think the Church lost a great PR moment here. The Great Mosque of Cordoba is mostly a tourist site these days. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit it every year. Catholics don’t find it a practical place in which to do their worship. That role is played by more local parish churches. Allowing the Mosque of Cordoba to be used as an ecumenic temple would be mostly a public-relations effort that would probably disturb few Catholics and fit well with all the efforts of interfaith dialogue pioneered by the late Pope John Paul II.
When I first moved to Canada, I was surprised to find that the local Catholic church shared the building with a Protestant church. One could go to mass at 9 AM or attend a Protestant service at 11:30. Martin Luther and Jean Calvin probably turned in their tombs, but I thought it was great. It shows respect towards each other and reminds us that we have more uniting us than we do separating us.
As a Spanish tourist said when asked if Muslims should be allowed to pray in the building, “Es de sentido común, es la mezquita de Córdoba”. A couple from Valencia added that after all, the Muslims also have the right to pray.
*a mihrab is a niche in the middle of a building that indicates the direction of Mecca
photo © El Pais