TOLEDO—Nearly all guided tours in Toledo include a stop at Santa Maria la Blanca. With its horseshoe arches, plaster pillars and spandrels decorated in late Moorish style, the 12th century building is one of the most magnificent monuments of the medieval Spanish city.
Today, it is a popular museum that attracts more than 300,000 visitors every year. Since the early 15th century, it has been the property of the Spanish Catholic Church, which successively used it as a monastery, a factory, a warehouse, and, more recently, as a destination for global tourism.
But originally, the building was Toledo’s first synagogue, known as the Ibn Shushan Synagogue, and the Jews of Spain want it back.
Last summer, Isaac Querub, the president of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Spain (FCJE), made an official request to the Archdiocese of Toledo and the Episcopal Conference of Spain to return the monument to the Jewish people. He also wrote a letter to the Spanish Minister of Justice.
“I would find it natural for the Catholic Church, as a sign of reconciliation between Jews and Christians, to return the building to our community,” said Querub. “This temple could become a synagogue, just as it used to be in the past. Everyone could come and visit it.”
Querub had already raised the issue in 2013 during an interfaith meeting with Vatican officials that included Cardinal Kurt Koch, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, then-Archbishop of Madrid. The Vatican has yet to respond to his request.
The ownership of Santa Maria la Blanca is part of a sensitive debate in Spain over the property of religious monuments.
In 1492, the Spanish Catholic monarchs expelled their Jews, the biggest Jewish community in the world at the time. Its members converted to Christianity or found refuge in Portugal, North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.
That same year, the fall of Granada put an end to eight centuries of Islamic rule in the Iberian Peninsula. A century later, the Moriscos, the descendants of the Muslims who had remained in the kingdom after the Reconquista, were forced out by royal decree.
In periods of religious wars, riots or expulsions, Spanish synagogues and mosques were turned into churches—when they were not destroyed. Prominent examples include the El Transito and Ibn Shushan synagogues in Toledo, as well as the Great Mosque of Córdoba, the Giralda in Seville or the Alcazar Jerez de la Frontera.
In recent years, Jewish and Muslim advocacy groups have lobbied the Spanish Catholic Church and the government to claim increased rights on what they consider to be historical and cultural sites.
A predominantly Catholic country, Spain has seen its Muslim and Jewish communities grow constantly over the past three decades. There are approximately 2 million Muslims (4 percent of the population) and 40,000 Jews (0.1 percent of the population) in Spain today. The discussion on the property of religious sites is a consequence of this demographic increase.
In the mid 2000s, tensions erupted in Córdoba. The city hosts a gigantic cathedral that served as a mosque for three centuries until King Ferdinand III conquered the city in 1236. Today, the site, known as the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, bears this dual heritage.
But Spanish Muslim groups have accused the church of attempting to erase the monument’s Muslim past. They’ve claimed that in official tourist brochures, references to Islam have been reduced. Spanish Muslims have also criticized the bishop of Córdoba for seeking to remove “mosque” from the site’s official name.
In 2006, the Córdoba-based Islamic Council wrote a letter to Pope Benedict, demanding the mosque–cathedral to be turned into an ecumenical space where both Christian and Muslim believers could pray. The Vatican rejected the request.
Four years later, a violent incident erupted on the site as Muslim tourists from Austria unrolled their prayer rugs and started to pray inside the church. They stabbed two security guards, who tried to stop them. The attackers were acquitted in 2013, but tensions remain.
In Toledo, the fate of Santa Maria la Blanca has also been a subject of controversy for many years.
Back in 2005, Italian newspapers claimed to have uncovered a secret deal between the Vatican and Israel that would return the site to the Jewish community. According to these accounts, the Holy See would return the ancient synagogue in exchange for the Upper Room or Cenacle, the alleged location of Jesus’ Last Supper, on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, which is also thought to be the site of King David’s Tomb. However, the Israeli government has denied the existence of such an agreement.
Another impediment to the return of the synagogue to the Jewish community is its potential domino effect. It could encourage Muslims to claim rights to another prominent building of Toledo: the Cristo de Luz, a former mosque that was turned into a chapel in the 12th century. Given the tense situation in Cordoba, it seems unlikely that the Church would take any such risk in Toledo.
Conscious of these obstacles, Isaac Querub acknowledged that it would take a long time until the Jewish community could regain possession of the synagogue. “I am planting seeds, but I’m not expecting to see the results in my lifetime” he said.
He also recognized the highly symbolic nature of his request. “There is not one Jewish family left in Toledo,” he said. “The goal is not to turn this building into an active place of worship. But it would mean a lot if the Church was willing to make a gesture.”
Photo: The Cathedral–Mosque of Córdoba. Timor Espallargas / Wikimedia Commons