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An ancient echo of NYC mosque debate in Córdoba, Spain

Córdoba, Spain, was a center of art and culture under medieval Islamic rule and an inspiration for the original name of the planned New York City mosque.

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The Great Mosque today is one of Spain's most visited attractions. The complex, which includes a massive prayer room of white and red painted archways plus an outdoor orange grove, was built in four phases over 200 years starting in the 8th century.

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To be sure, early disputes were over aesthetics as much as they were over ecumenical values.

In 1523, well after Spanish Christians had conquered the city, the Roman Catholic Church decided to knock down several rows of arches to build a cathedral almost in the center of the rectangular mosque. At first, the city rebelled against the plan, but King Carlos V sided with the Church – until he saw the result: “You have done what has been done elsewhere, and you have undone what was unique in the world,” Carlos reportedly said.

The finished product, however, is certainly unique. The cathedral's proportion of the Islamic complex is roughly what would happen if a tennis court were made to fill the last 30 yards of a football field. And while the mosque/cathedral is protected by the Culture Ministry and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984, it is owned and managed by the Catholic Church, which holds regular masses there.

Córdoba controversy

For around two decades, Spain's Islamic communities have requested that the complex be used for both Christian and Muslim prayer. Letters have reached the Spanish prime minister and the pope. Neither institution has responded, and the Church hasn't budged on its preservation of the site as one for Catholic prayer alone.

Guards at the site ensure that Muslims do not pray. In March, a few Muslim tourists from Austria knelt down inside the mosque and were soon surrounded by security. An altercation erupted, and according to the guards, the tourists assaulted them – a charge the visitors deny.

A week later, a non-Muslim tourist from Rhode Island sat down in a yoga position in the mosque to protest what happened to the Austrians, and she, too, was escorted from the complex. In January a group of students led by an imam and a nun from Maryland were thrown out because the two teachers attempted to explain the site without an official guide.

“The paranoia is reaching absurd levels,” says Mansur Escudero, a Córdoba-based psychiatrist and the head of the Junta Islámica, one of Spain's largest Muslim associations. “These anti-Islamic events only strengthen the extremists and terrorists. And what is happening in New York is similar. There is a clear political manipulation of emotions and symbols, and I find that dangerous. Sacrificing principles such as religious freedom is serious. I hope that the Americans come to their senses.”