Seeking to Renew Balance in a Site’s Dual History

CÓRDOBA, Spain — The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, considered one of the world’s architectural wonders, is often portrayed as a symbol of coexistence between Muslims and Catholics.

After 1236, when the Catholic monarchy defeated the Moors in Córdoba, the massive structure was one of the few Islamic buildings to survive. Later, it underwent several overhauls and was transformed into a cathedral, becoming what stands today as a melding of architectural styles and traditions so special that Unesco granted it World Heritage status.

But recently the site has become the subject of a dispute over its management and ownership by the Roman Catholic Church that has laid bare a more complicated history. The dispute has also raised questions over the church’s registry in recent years of thousands of assets across Spain under tax exemption, a status that has drawn new scrutiny in what remains a climate of painful economic austerity.

In May, for the first time, a citizens’ group presented a petition to the president of the Parliament of Andalusia, the southern region that includes Córdoba, urging lawmakers to defend the multicultural values of the building and reduce what it considers to be abusive control by the church.

The petition, backed by more than 370,000 signatures, demands full disclosure over how the church spends revenues from the site and calls on lawmakers to transfer its management to a board of governors that would include both state and church representatives, as well as some independent experts.

Antonio Manuel Rodríguez, a law professor at Córdoba University and one of the leaders of the citizens’ group, said the church had recently been on an evangelical crusade, making sure that every visitor became one of the “faithful.” He added that the church had “claimed ownership over a building that belongs not only to the general public but to world patrimony and is making it a symbol of intolerance rather than tolerance.”

Mr. Rodríguez also accuses the church of offering visitors “an adulterated version of history” that exaggerates its influence over the building’s development. As evidence, he cited a change in the labeling of the entrance tickets and brochures, which describe the building only as a “cathedral,” wiping out a reference to its history as a mosque.

The church strongly denies such accusations. The Rev. Pablo Garzón, spokesman for the Córdoba Diocese, said, “It’s false to suggest we’re trying to occult the past, but we do want to make it very clear to a visitor that he is entering a cathedral.” He drew a comparison to the Louvre in Paris: “If you enter the Louvre, it is made clear that it’s a museum, even if it was once a palace.”

In fact, 30 years ago, when declaring Córdoba a World Heritage Site, Unesco described it as a mosque, to the frustration of the church. That award is now being put at risk by the church, according to Federico Mayor Zaragoza, a former director general of Unesco.

“Any attempt to make one religion prevail over the other clearly worries me,” he said.

The Rev. Manuel Nieto Cumplido, a historian who manages the cathedral’s archives, said that portraying the building as a symbol of religious concord was well intentioned, but based on a “totally wrong” understanding of its history. “This place is as little a symbol of reconciliation as St. Peter’s in the Vatican,” he said.

“People coexisted here, but with clear limitations on the rights of Christians and Jews,” Father Nieto Cumplido said. “Certainly, any Christian who tried to enter the mosque would be killed.”

Others concede as much. On an artistic level, Gabriel Ruiz Cabrero, an architect who has helped restore the building, said that “this place is probably far too complex to be described by just one name.”

But he welcomed the church’s efforts to promote Catholic worship because “the first rule of conservation is to maintain usage of a building.” He added, “I would prefer this to become a mosque again rather than an archaeological park, if that was the choice.”

The site is a profitable and busy tourist destination, from which the Córdoba diocese took in $11.5 million last year from over one million visitors. But the church says it spent more than $10 million on conservation of the building and general expenses. About a fifth of the church’s spending goes to parochial and social work.

Though it has had control of the site for centuries, the church registered the building as its property only in 2006, after a change in the law allowed the church to formally register its ownership of the property, over which it had long held undefined control.

Since the economic crisis of 2008, however, hard-pressed town halls have increasingly questioned the fiscal exemptions as well as the lack of transparency around what assets the church actually registered and owns.

“There is something like a campaign against the church and the singularity of this building makes it very easy to make us the focus of a wider effort to make all the cathedrals and churches in this country pay,” said the Rev. Fernando Cruz-Conde, who is in charge of the site’s finances.

During a debate in the Spanish Parliament in April, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, Spain’s justice minister, rejected a proposal by an opposition lawmaker for the state to take over the site’s ownership. Such an expropriation, the minister warned, would require paying significant compensation to the church.

Father Garzón, the spokesman for the diocese, said it would be “totally impossible” for the church to cede control to a board of governors. “This runs against the basic principles of private property,” he said. “We inherited this cathedral, and it is our duty to maintain it for the next generation of Catholics in Córdoba.”

That has not stopped Mr. Ruiz-Gallardón from drafting a law that would make it much harder for the church to register assets in the future. The law would not be retroactive, however, “so this brings nothing to Córdoba and thousands of other places that the church recently registered in complete secrecy,” Mr. Rodríguez said.

He argues that taxes should at least be paid on a sound-and-light show that takes visitors around the building at night. The night show was also set up thanks to $2 million in European Union subsidies, he said.

Father Cruz-Conde said the church’s tax exemption “was just the same as that of any other nongovernmental organization,” as well as Spanish political parties and trade unions. Unlike some other tax-free beneficiaries, however, “we provide charity and social work that will disappear if we have to pay taxes,” he said.

For now, the dispute is doing little to spoil the enjoyment of tourists like Georg Larscheid, a German Catholic. But Mr. Larscheid said that he felt “irritated” to hear that “people are arguing when this place is so ideal to bring different people together.”