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Spain: Five Hundred Years and Religious Freedom

By Pedro C. Moreno
Published December 22, 2007

At the time of commemoration of five hundred years since the Catholic Monarchs issued a decree by which thousands of unconverted Spanish Jews were expelled from Spain, this nation has signed some “Accords” that attempt, at least in part, to rectify old intolerances, especially in religious matters. The “Accords of Cooperation Between the Spanish State and the Federation of Israeli Communities and the Federation of Evangelical Entities” (FEREDE) were signed on February 21, 1990 and are currently in the process of ratification by the Spanish parliament (the Cortes).

Spain has had a pronounced history of religious intolerance. Once the Spanish civil war was over, the Roman Catholic Church contributed to the establishment of Franco’s authoritarian rule through a “National Catholicism” that excluded all dissident religious movements (Concordat of 1953, Art. 1). Non-catholic churches were closed, religious publications were confiscated, civil marriages were forbidden, non-catholic religious educational centers were outlawed, and religious proselytism (other than catholic) was strictly prohibited.

José Cardona G., Executive Secretary of FEREDE, who recently was awarded the “Gold Medal” by the Spanish Pro-Human Rights League because of his defense of religious freedom in Spain, said: “Any political or religious dissidence was condemned to be repressed and extinguished … in order to maintain the spiritual unity of the nation.” (Principles of the National Movement, Art. 2).

As time went by the Franco regime began to soften, but very slowly because it was constrained by the concordat, “which really was a ‘conformat’ of the state to the requirements of the ‘religious unity,’” said Cardona. In 1978 a new Constitution was signed, providing in Article 16 for “the freedom of religion, worship, and ideology for the individuals and communities, without other limitations in their manifestation than the necessary to maintain public order protected by law.” The third part of the article, state established religion, declares: “No (religious) confession will have official status.” Under this constitutional provision, Organic Law 7/1980 was enacted dealing with religious liberty, and the above-mentioned Accords were made possible based on this latter law.

The Accords drawn within the framework of the principle of “aconfessionality” of the state, recognize the “manifest rootage” in Spanish society of the Protestant Christian communities (and Jewish ones) and give them a status and prerogatives formerly enjoyed only by the Catholic church. Provisions in the Accords, divided in 13 articles, deal with issues such as elimination of property taxes for temples and other places of worship; and equals the term “Protestant minister” to “Catholic priest” affording the former the same recognition and privileges that the latter enjoys, making possible for Protestant ministers to serve as chaplains in the military and to obtain social security. The right to religious assistance by a member of his/her own creed, is also provided for, and can be exercised by any person interned in a military, educational, or health facility.

In the educational realm, public and private schools could be compelled to provide Protestant religious instruction to the students that so required it. With these provisions and considering that the Spanish Protestant population does not even reach one per cent of the population (71,000 people), the status of religious freedom in Spain would be one of the most comprehensive, comparable (at least in theory) to the one in the United States and others countries in Europe.

Enrique Mugica, Spanish Minister of Justice, in his speech given at the signing of these Accords remarked: “When we now speak of Spain, we do not speak of the one which has been for centuries the ‘official’ Spain, as if that would be the only possible one. There have always been other Spains, unavoidably connected to that which was considered ‘heresy’ or the resistance to the yoke of hegemonic officialism.”

“A Spain,” says Mugica referring to the real Spain, “heterodox but infinitely fertile, versatile, agile, creative and dynamic. It is the case of the converted Calvinists, Huguenots, and other forms of ‘Protestants’ in their original sense, because Protestants were, in the most pristine manner, those who raised their voice against the despotic rule of the officialized dogma, a dogma that has always tried to clothe itself with the prestige of the ‘majority’ creed.”

Speaking about democracy, the Minister of Justice added: “It is necessary to recall sometimes that the history of Spain has not always been extremely good at compatibilizing the public sentiment and the democratic system. On the contrary, public matters have always been easy prey of a patrimonial deviation of the idea of ‘the official.’ In consequence, we have been slow to understand that democracy implies not only the realization of the will of the majority, but also the awareness of the limits of that majority.” And he notes: “What we understand as the right to dissent in the defense of a (religious) belief, has become an essential factor of verification for the democratic system.”

Finally, and in relation to the five hundred years, Mugica affirms: “Taking as a starting point this invitation to the maximum liberty and social integration of all creeds and beliefs, we can overcome the negative reference that for many involves the myth of ’92. And I have used the word “myth” intentionally, because ’92 is certainly the Fifth Centenary of a date in which it was inaugurated a time of affirmation and conquest, outwardly oriented and externalized with the expelling of the Jews. This time demonstrated the will to exclude from that political project anything that represented a minority, heterodoxy, dissidence, or mere diversity. The decree that provided for the expelling of the Jews meant, in effect, an exclusive and selective reading of the Spanish reality. A reading, that in my opinion could be equated to a ‘self-denial.’”

The Minister of Justice sentenced: “For the Spanish democracy, ’92 is not the vindication of exclusive epics with a totalitarian vocation, but on the contrary, the symbol of our own historical effort to advance toward democracy.”

Pedro Moreno San Juan, is an attorney, President of the Rutherford Institute of Bolivia and representative for Spanish speaking countries.

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