A court in southern Spain has acquitted eight Muslims who were accused of resorting to violence to break a ban on Muslim prayers in a cathedral in the city of Córdoba. The church was once the world's second-biggest mosque and remains the single most powerful symbol of Islam in Spain.
Some observers say the ruling, which caught Spanish public prosecutors completely by surprise, reflects a desire by local judges to dispense with a highly sensitive case that has the potential to inflame Muslim sensibilities.
But the ruling is likely to embolden the growing Muslim community in Spain and elsewhere, who believe they have a legitimate claim to the historic monument because of its former identity as a mosque.
The trial, held at Criminal Court of Córdoba on February 4, 2013, involved an incident that took place on March 31, 2010 at the Córdoba Cathedral, also known as the Great Mosque of Córdoba, one of the most visited monuments in Spain.
An altercation broke out when eight members of a group of 118 Muslim tourists from Austria unrolled their prayer rugs inside the church, kneeled on the floor and began praying loudly. When security guards ordered them to stop, the Muslims responded by attacking them.
After a dozen police reinforcements were called into the church to arrest the Muslim offenders, they, too, were attacked. Two security guards were injured in the melee, which police said was planned in advance.
Spanish public prosecutors had asked the court to sentence the eight defendants to a total of 15 years in prison for disturbing public order, assaulting law enforcement officers and injuring the security guards.
During the trial, the Muslim defendants denied all of the accusations against them, saying they were the ones attacked by the security guards and the police, and not the other way around.
During their testimony, the plaintiffs displayed evidence of their injuries to the court; but they also offered what the judge considered to be contradictory accounts of several details of the incident. As a result, the defendants were acquitted based on a lack of evidence.
In his ruling, Judge Juan Luis Rascón said although it was proved beyond a doubt that the defendants engaged in Muslim prayers in the cathedral, they did so "in an area not specifically dedicated to Catholic worship." He added that there were "logical doubts" [dudas lógicas] as to whether the incident was planned in advance. Moreover, there was no proof that the ringleader of the group, Zaid El-Aifari, actually assaulted a security guard with a knife, as the prosecutor had alleged.
Rascón also said it is not within the court's competence to assess whether Muslim prayers performed inside a Catholic church could be considered to be a provocation.
Finally, Rascón said that although the defendants' behavior may be considered by some to be "socially reprehensible," to convict them would "do a disservice to freedom of religious thought and respect for the plurality of religions."
Prosecutors were blindsided by the ruling, which they say will be appealed. The decision was all the more surprising because another judge involved in the case had previously ruled that the incident was indeed premeditated, that the defendants were "clearly organized" (they had used walkie-talkies to coordinate their movements inside the building), and that security cameras had recorded the incident.
Some observers have speculated that the judge's decision may have been politically motivated. They point to the fact that before becoming a judge, Rascón was a politician with the Spanish Socialist Party, which is firmly committed to multiculturalism and has long sought to undermine the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Spanish society.
In any case, the dispute over Muslim demands to share the church are unlikely to subside.
The Córdoba Cathedral is built on the site of what was originally the Visigothic church of San Vicente, which was built in the year 590. After the Islamic conquest of Spain, Muslims razed the church and in 786 replaced it with a mosque. In 1236, Córdoba was reconquered by King Ferdinand III of Castile in the Reconquista, and the mosque was subsequently consecrated as a church, which it has remained ever since.
All had been relatively quiet at the Córdoba Cathedral for more than 750 years, until January 2004, when Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden began encouraging Muslims to "reconquer" Spain for Islam by declaring it to be "the lost Al-Andalus."
In a speech titled "Message to the Muslim People," bin Laden said: "No Muslim territory should ever become non-Muslim. … Let the whole world know that we shall never accept the tragedy of Andalusia."
Andalusia, a region in southern Spain, derives its name from Al-Andalus, the Arabic name given to those parts of Spain, Portugal and France that were occupied by Muslim conquerors (also known as the Moors) from 711 to 1492.
Many Muslims believe that much of Spain still belongs to them, and that they have every right to return and establish their rule there.
In April 2004, not long after bin Laden's call to arms, the president of the Islamic Council of Spain [Junta Islámica], the late Mansur Escudero, formally petitioned Pope John Paul II for the right to pray in the Córdoba Cathedral, in the interests of promoting "inter-faith dialogue." At the time, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue rejected the request out of hand.
In December 2006, Muslims sought to capitalize on Pope Benedict XVI's efforts to defuse Muslim anger after his so-called Regensburg Lecture, in which he quoted disparaging remarks by a 14th century Byzantine emperor about the Prophet Mohammed.
In a letter to the Pope, Escudero wrote: "We invite you to create a new example, to send a message of hope to the world. Do not fear. 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."
The letter says Spanish Muslims do not intend to take control of the building or "recover a nostalgic Al-Andalus." Rather, they seek to restore the "spirit of Al-Andalus, where Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed in relative harmony."
Shortly after mailing his letter to the Pope, Escudero declared: "Al-Andalus will continue being Al-Andalus for Muslims of all ages. It is there; we have created it. Here we have our dead, who remain alive, awaiting Resurrection Day."
In September 2007, bin Laden's deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, said: "Reconquering Al-Andalus is the duty of the Islamic nation in general and of you [the Al-Qaeda fighters] in particular."
In October 2007, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa endorsed Escudero's demands during an OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) conference against "Intolerance and Discrimination" held in Córdoba. In his opening remarks, Moussa said Muslims must be allowed to pray in the Córdoba Cathedral "to demonstrate our religious coexistence."
Moussa said: "All churches and mosques are built for prayer and to be used for this end; I think there wouldn't be a religious clash at all; the clash would be instead of a political nature." However, he ignored questions pertaining to why Christians are not only forbidden to pray in mosques but are even prohibited from building churches in some Muslim countries.
The Roman Catholic Church in Spain has so far held its ground by continuing to reject Muslim demands for joint use of the cathedral. It says Muslim proposals "fit within the framework of a false dialogue."
According to the Bishop of Córdoba, Demetrio Fernández, the recent violence shows the impossibility of sharing a house of worship with Muslims, which would be akin to "sharing a wife between two husbands." As a result, he says, the ban on Muslim prayers must remain in place.
Fernández asks: "Would they be happy to do the same in any of their mosques? Absolutely not. I understand their religious feeling and they have to understand ours as well. The religious feeling is the deepest one in the human heart, so it is not possible to share."
In an opinion article in the Spanish newspaper ABC, Fernández compared the situation in Córdoba to the Basilica of Saint John the Baptist in Damascus. After the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634, the Byzantine cathedral was converted into a mosque. Also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, it is considered by some Muslims to be the fourth holiest site in Islam.
Says Fernández: "We wouldn't think of asking for the Damascus mosque, because it belongs to the Muslims and for them it is an emblematic place. It is the same for Christians because Saint John's basilica is very important to us, but we understand that history does not go back. It only goes forward. So, it does not make sense to ask for the Córdoba Cathedral to convert it into a mosque. It does not make sense because history is irreversible."
Many Muslims disagree with Fernández, and the dispute is unlikely to go away until the church concedes defeat. As the Muslim population in Spain continues to grow in size (it is expected to nearly double by 2030) and in political influence, history may be reversed earlier than most Spaniards might imagine.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.