Spain Is Seeking to Integrate Growing Muslim Population

La Giralda, this city's grand tower, with its warm terra-cotta colors, delicate brick patterns and a height of almost 300 feet, was once called Spain's perfect minaret. Its twin stands in Marrakesh, Morocco, a reminder of the centuries-old ties between the two countries.

Seville's minaret has been the bell tower of the city's Roman Catholic cathedral for the past 500 years. Today, however, many of those who walk by it daily are again Moroccans, part of the growing number of Muslim immigrants to Spain. While they have not talked about reclaiming the minaret, they are seeking permission to build a large mosque here, as have Islamic immigrants have in six other Spanish cities.

At the moment, Seville's Muslims, many of them clandestine workers, meet in small buildings or discrete prayer rooms. But every demand for a proper house of worship awakens nervousness here.

Many Spaniards still view North African Arabs and Berbers - Spain's onetime rulers - with suspicion and disdain. Those feelings deepened after Moroccans emerged as the main suspects in the terrorist bombings of Madrid trains in March that killed 192 people.

But Spain has close to a million Muslim immigrants, and the new Socialist government is clearly accepting the fact that most of them are here to stay.

In early October, the government created a foundation to help "minority religions" integrate into Spanish society. Seemingly modest, it is still a remarkable step for this nation once forged by religious wars against the Muslim rulers. Spain's Inquisition persecuted Muslims, Jews and Protestants alike to impose Catholic dominance.

The new foundation, with only $3.5 million to start, intends to finance projects for Jews and Protestants as well. But above all it intends to improve the government's relations with Muslims and to give them more of a voice in national issues.

"We have been asking for funds and it's only a small start, but it's positive," said Mansur Escudero of the Islamic Commission of Spain.

Since the Madrid bombings, the Spanish police have stepped up monitoring of terrorist suspects and they track Muslim clerics whom they fear could incite their followers to violence. But at the same time, many Spaniards say that it is indispensable to improve the dialogue with the moderate Muslim majority.

A leading voice for that position is Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who recently called for "an alliance of cultures" in the Western and Muslim world as a way to isolate those who advocate violence.

Since taking power in March, Spain's new Socialist government has set out to improve its links with Algeria, Tunisia and, above all, Morocco, with which relations soured under Spain's previous conservative administration.

As one of several initiatives, Spain recently announced that 2005 will be The Year of Morocco, while Morocco has declared 2006 to The Year of Spain. The culture ministers of the two countries said that events and themes would include theater, contemporary art exhibitions, translations of literature and restorations of artworks.

The new foundation, however, reflects Spain's quandary when dealing with any religious issue. Spanish officials have openly said they would like to reduce Spanish Muslims' dependence on foreign financing. A number of Spain's 400 Muslim prayer houses and mosques have received money from Libya, Morocco or Malaysia. Europe's largest mosque, located just outside Madrid, was built by Saudi Arabia.

Spain initially planned to subsidize mosques directly, but backed away from that idea. Officials said the government could not justify financing mosques when it is striving for a greater separation between church and state. The government hopes to tackle one of the country's most prickly issues, reducing both the state financing of the Roman Catholic clergy and, in turn, Catholic influence on politics.

Of Spain's 43 million people, only one in five consider themselves practicing Catholics. But the clout of the Catholic hierarchy is still regarded as enormous. The discussion about financing other religions has drawn fresh attention to this issue.

In keeping with a longstanding pact with the Vatican that dates to the time of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, the government pays the clergy's salaries and meets many other costs for the Catholic Church. In next year's budget, which was just announced, the government will pay $175 million in salaries for the clergy. Its real contribution to the church, though, will far exceed that.

It is not yet clear how the new foundation's money will be distributed, or how much will be available for Spain's estimated 15,000 Jews or for its Protestants, especially the evangelical denominations, who are said to have 300,000 members.

Mr. Escudero, of the Islamic Commission, a former Catholic, brushed aside the differences. He said Muslim groups should concentrate on getting public financing in proportion to their numbers. Either the government should contribute fairly to all religions, or to none, he said.

The new foundation "could become just a cover-up for a very unjust and lopsided situation," he said, referring to the government payments to the Catholic Church. "We have debated going to the constitutional court over this," he said, "but we think it's better to avoid confrontation."