Whose edifice is this? Spain peels back the layers of its identity

Ever since Charles V erected an altar and choir stall in the middle of this city's Great Mosque five centuries ago - clearing out many of the mosque's emblematic red-and-white-striped arches in the process - Córdoba's Mezquita has symbolized Spain's divisive past.

But now, Muslim immigrants and Spanish converts to Islam are requesting the right to pray inside what was once Europe's most spectacular mosque. That right was taken away during the Christian Reconquest in 1236.

In March the Junta Islámica, a Spanish organization, asked the Vatican for permission for Muslims to worship in the Mezquita. The church's 8th-century Moorish heritage still recalls for Muslims a glorious history in the Iberian Peninsula.

But the request has spurred questions over what Spain's religious and cultural underpinnings are and to whom its history belongs.

It is part of a larger debate vexing Europe. Continued immigration has left many countries struggling not only to integrate new and diverse populations, but to redefine what it means to be European.

In France, in an effort to incorporate Muslims into its secular society, the government banned head scarves in public schools and established local training centers for imams - measures that have both proved controversial.

After years of opposition from the Greek Orthodox Church, Greece's new government approved in April construction of Athens' first mosque. Much of Italy's largely Catholic population, meanwhile, has resisted legislation that would remove crucifixes from public classrooms. And the European Union as a whole is debating whether it should acknowledge the Continent's "Christian heritage" in the Constitution it hopes to approve next month.

In Spain the issues are more complicated still. Muslims ruled the Iberian Peninsula for more than 700 years, and Spaniards take pride in what was achieved in Al Andalus, the ancient Moorish kingdom. Today, the relics of that glorious culture, including Córdoba's Mezquita and Granada's Alhambra, are among the most emblematic of Spain's monuments - as well as the most popular of its tourist destinations.

But the country has long distanced itself politically and socially from its Muslim heritage. "Since the conquest of Granada, Spanish identity has been based on a militant sense of difference from Islam," says Simon Doubleday, a professor of medieval Spanish history at Hofstra University in New York.

In the 20th century, dictator Francisco Franco revived the language of "reconquest" to describe his own fight against his political opponents during his rule. His dictatorship demanded conformity in the form of national Catholicism.

But as the nation's economy has grown over the past decade, Spain has faced an unprecedented surge in immigration. Today, an estimated 500,000 Muslims reside in the country, the majority from Morocco. And the country has struggled to meld its increasingly heterogenous population into a unified society, a task that the March 11 terrorist attacks has made more difficult.

As part of the government's antiterror initiative, Minister of the Interior José Antonio Alonso recently proposed a law - similar to those in Britain and France - that would regulate the country's estimated 400 mosques. Against these heightened tensions, the debate over the Mezquita carries heavier symbolic meaning.

Mansur Escudero, Secretary-General of the Spanish Islamic Commission, sees the opening of the Mezquita to Muslim worship as an especially significant gesture. "In these difficult times, it could be an important symbol for both Catholics and Muslims, an expression of willingness to enter into dialogue," he says. "We're not trying to take the Mezquita away from anyone, but simply open it up."

The Catholic Church has been unsympathetic to the request. Although Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, the Vatican's president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, declared that the matter must be decided by the local bishop, he also said that "Muslims must accept history."

Córdoba's local government has stayed out of the controversy. The city's lieutenant mayor, Andrés Ocaña, says the opening of the Mezquita is a "subject for dialogue between the two religions."

But in the wake of calls by Osama bin Laden to "reclaim Al Andalus," some Cordobans see the Mezquita petition as insidious. "It's a reconquest," says one local priest, who asked to remain anonymous. "Through force, through geography, through culture, they [the Muslims] are trying to take over."

His fear is shared by many Spaniards who believe that Muslims are a threat to local and national security. Eva Fimia, who runs a souvenir shop in front of the Mezquita, thinks that "the Moors," as she calls North Africans, "should go back to their own country."

Many non-Muslim Cordobans, however, support the Mezquita proposal. "Anyone should be able to pray there," says José Raval, a high school teacher. "The Mezquita has been named a heritage site for humanity, and aren't Arabs part of humanity?"

While fear of terrorism complicates Spain's efforts to integrate Muslims, many here still hope that a more generous public spirit - such as existed in the age of "convivencia," when Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative harmony across the Iberian Peninsula - will prevail, and that a new, more inclusive, national identity will flourish.

Earlier this month, the bishop of Santiago de Compostela removed from that city's cathedral a 14th-century statue of Saint James "the Moorslayer," citing a wish to avoid "offending the sensibilities of some visitors."

It is a gesture that Isabel Romero, who directs the Halal Institute outside Córdoba, can appreciate. Spaniards have a habit of thinking of Muslim Spain as something foreign, she says. "We don't recognize that the Muslims were from here, that they were Andalusians too, that they are our roots."

And she sees the proposal to open the Mezquita to Muslim worship as a step in the right direction. "What remains from Al Andalus are not just the Mezquita's stones, but our culture itself," says Ms. Romero. "We have to reconcile ourselves with our history."

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