Stone Bridge across the Ebro River as seen from the Pillar Bridge at Zaragoza, Spain.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar on the banks of the Ebro river © Dreamstime

The Spanish city of Zaragoza traces its Christian heritage back to the year 40AD when the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to St James the Apostle on the banks of the river Ebro. The Roman pillar on which she was sighted has been an object of veneration ever since. To this day, the city’s skyline is dominated by the spires and domes of its renowned twin cathedrals.

But much of Zaragoza’s religious heritage is now embroiled in a modern controversy. At stake is a question that is being asked in villages and cities across Spain, and that has pitted the Catholic Church against a new breed of leftwing politicians and secular activists: who owns all the cathedrals, monasteries, churches and shrines?

For Jorge García González, the chairman of Zaragoza’s Movement towards a Secular State, the answer is simple. “These places were built and maintained by generations of people from Zaragoza,” he says. “They should therefore belong to everyone in the city. They should be public property — not the private property of the Church.”

Crucially, that view is now shared in Zaragoza’s city hall, which sits side by side with the imposing Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar, and just across the square from the elegant Cathedral of the Saviour. Pedro Santisteve was installed as mayor last year, after leading a newly-formed leftwing alliance known as Zaragoza en Común to victory in the local elections. His success was mirrored in cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia and Cádiz, all of which are today governed by mayors with close ties to the far-left Podemos party.

“We want to know what happened, and why places of worship that were built by the people have ended up — through a series of obscure manoeuvres — being registered by the Church in its name,” says Mr Santisteve.

Jorge García Gonzalez. President of the Asociation Movement towards a laicist state. Behind him The Cathedral of teh Savior.
Jorge García González outside the Cathedral of the Saviour. 'These places were built and maintained by generations of people from Zaragoza.' he said. 'The should therefore belong to everyone in the city' © FT

He has written to both the regional government and the Spanish government in Madrid demanding a full list of church properties registered in Zaragoza. Separately, Mr Santisteve is considering bringing a case to the constitutional court to “establish the legality of a situation that seems to me to be illegal”.

The “obscure manoeuvres” that trouble the mayor refer to a seemingly small change to Spain’s property law in 1998 that allowed the Catholic Church to inscribe places of worship in the property register. Thanks to a legal privilege dating back to the 1940s, it could do so through a simple certificate signed by the local bishop, without the need to provide a title or other form of proof.

By all accounts, the amendment triggered a flood of registrations that secured thousands of properties — from vineyards and sports facilities to the world-famous Mezquita Cathedral in Cordoba — for the Catholic Church. In the tiny region of Navarra alone, the church registered more than 1,000 properties between 1998 and 2015, when the privilege was finally abolished.

Antonio Manuel Rodríguez, a professor of law at Cordoba University and prominent critic of the Church’s exclusive domain over the Mezquita Cathedral, describes the process as “the biggest property scandal in history”. Just like Mr García in Zaragoza, he argues that all the church’s first-time registrations, known in Spain as inmatriculaciones, should be annulled by the state retroactively. At the very least, the state should force the Church to disclose what properties it has registered. Outside Navarra and the Basque country, the number is still unknown.

“It is a scandal that the Church was allowed to act like the state,” says Mr Rodríguez.

E1H1AH Alfonso I street with Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Pilar church behind, Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain
The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Pillar seen through the streets of Zaragoza. Polls show that church attendance has fallen sharply over the past decade, with close to 60 per cent of Spanish Catholics saying they never attend mass © Alamy

Spain’s Catholic Church dismisses the criticism, and warns against a renewed surge in anticlerical sentiment in the Spanish left. “These properties have been with the church since time immemorial,” argues José Antonio Calvo, the spokesman for the Archbishop of Zaragoza. The only reason why the Church was allowed to certify its ownership without proof, he adds, is “because there were no property titles in medieval times”.

Jorge Otaduy, a professor of church law at the University of Navarra, which is closely affiliated with the Catholic Church, argues that “everything was done in conformity with the law”. He believes the campaign is marked by “ignorance and demagoguery”, and by an attempt to “damage the standing of the church”.

Whether the church can ultimately be forced to publicise — let alone relinquish — its property portfolio remains to be seen. But the dispute catches the institution at a difficult time. Polls show that church attendance has fallen sharply over the past decade, with close to 60 per cent of Spanish Catholics saying they never attend mass. Barely two-thirds of the population now identify as Catholic, while 18 per cent say they are non-believers and 9 per cent identify as atheists.

Pedro Santisteve. The mayor of Zaragoza.
Pedro Santisteve, mayor of Zaragoza, is considering bringing a case to the constitutional court over the Church's ownership of the city's religious buildings © FT

At the same time, the church has lost a series of important political battles, most notably when it failed to avert the introduction of gay marriage and a further relaxation of abortion laws.

In Zaragoza and other cities governed by Spain’s new left, the challenge to the church’s status now appears to be entering a new phase. Mr Santisteve says he has a cordial relationship with the local diocese, but he is also determined to widen the gulf between church and state. He has banished the crucifix from the local parliament, removed small but symbolically important subsidies to religious parades and ended the tradition of displaying a nativity scene in the town hall. Mr Santisteve has also refused to participate in the Easter processions, which traditionally see the mayor and local councillors marching with the clergy and local religious fraternities.

Critics see these and other moves as an unnecessary break with tradition at best, and as a deliberate attempt to erase the church from public life at worst. To the mayor, however, it is part of a long-overdue effort to implement the separation between church and state that was enshrined in Spain’s constitution four decades ago. “We are simply trying to put things in their place,” he says.

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