Fr Kevin Hegarty
Some months ago I read in ‘Africa’, the lively magazine of the Kiltegan Missionary Society, a heart-warming story written by an Irish priest working in Nigeria. His parish team organised a three-day seminar on the theme of building community. Among the attendance, surprisingly, was a young Muslim from a remote village, for relations between Muslims and Christians are fraught in Nigeria.
By Friday the young man was uneasy. In accordance with his religion he was obliged to attend at prayer in a mosque by noon. He had no transport and the nearest mosque was some distance away. Sensing his unease, one of the priests brought him to his place of worship. He was grateful that his religious convictions were so fully respected. At the end of the seminar he said that his neighbours in his village would find it almost impossible to believe that a Christian priest would bring him to a mosque to pray.
A simple story, a small act of generosity, nothing earth-shattering about it, but, nonetheless, it lit a little beacon of hope in the murky atmosphere that clouds relations between Christians and Muslims.
A similar gesture would be welcome in Cordoba in Spain where Muslims are denied the right to pray in its ‘Great Mosque’, now controlled by the Catholic Church. Mansur Escudero recently asked Bishop Ricardo Blazquez to explain why Muslims are forbidden to pray in the mosque. The bishop replied that public worship was prohibited but seemed to make a grudging allowance for private prayer. Mr Escudero then stated that Muslims would return to pray in the mosque ‘in a respectful, private and individual capacity’. The bishop immediately hardened his position by asserting that Muslims ‘cannot in any way pray’ there.
Bishop Blazquez and his episcopal colleagues are alarmed by Islamic plans to build new mosques at several locations in Andalusia in the South of Spain. Already one has been built at Granada. The plans remind them of a difficult history. For Muslims, originating from North Africa, were a dominant force in the peninsula for four centuries from 700AD, a strong force for 170 years after that and a lesser one for a further 250 years. They developed one of the most sophisticated societies of medieval Europe. It was from here that much of the scholarship of ancient Greece, picked up by the Arabs in the eastern Mediterranean, was transmitted to Christian Europe. By the standards of its time it was a tolerant society. Jews and Christians had religious freedom, though Christians had to pay a tax to worship.
So the Muslims have left a substantial Islamic imprint on the landscape of southern Spain. The ‘Great Mosque’ at Cordoba, one of the architectural and artistic wonders of Europe, is a striking reminder of that magnificent civilisation.
The mosque embodies physically the shifting balances of power between Muslims and Christians in the region. It was begun in 784AD on the site of the Christian Church of St Vincent which in its turn covered a Roman Temple to Janus. Over the centuries of Islamic domination the mosque was enlarged and embellished, finally extending over 23,000 metres incorporating 1,293 columns. The mosque was, architecturally, a revolutionary statement; with its elegant curving arches it broke away from the verticality of earlier mosques to evoke in a unique way the open yards of desert homes that formed the original Islamic prayer spaces.
After the fall of Muslim Spain the Christian visitors commandeered the mosque as their cathedral. In the 16th century the centre of the mosque was ripped out to provide for the construction of an actual cathedral within the mosque; built over the next two centuries the cathedral is a jumble of styles from the late Renaissance to Spanish Baroque.
I visited the mosque last spring and it seemed to me that what happened in the 16th century was an architectural atrocity. It is as if a scene from ‘Riverdance’ was to be violently interpolated into an Italian opera. They each reflected the culture of the respective countries but they do not gel as an ensemble. Emperor Charles V, who gave permission for the development, later regretted his decision when he saw how it destroyed the austere symmetry of the mosque. He told local clerics: “You have destroyed something unique in the world to build something you could have put anywhere.”
The architectural atrocity of the 16th century is irreversible but, hopefully, the recent decision of Bishop Blazquez, to prohibit Muslim prayer in the mosque, can be changed. Mr Escudero has petitioned Pope Benedict XVI to overturn the decision. That the Pope prayed in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque on his visit to Turkey last year encourages him to hope for a favourable reply. It might even be the beginning of something wonderful. As the distinguished commentator Joan Bakewell wrote in the London ‘Independent’: “If Muslims and Christians can make their prayers within the same precincts in Cordoba, then the possibility exists for Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Christians elsewhere to be reconciled. It is a far hope but historic change has to start somewhere.”