Freedom to worship
Pastor Javier Enrique Molina looks out over his 120-strong congregation and leads them in prayer. Of those who attend the regular services, held four days a week at the Iglesia Pentecostal Unida en Europa, the majority are Colombians and other Latin Americans, but there are also some Africans, Spaniards, British and French worshippers. “We’ve grown a lot, from nothing, in the last six years, but we’re not as big as we want to be,” Molina said, reflecting on the growth of his congregation.
Based in a suburban street in l’Hospitalet de Llobregat, Molina’s church is typical of the evolution and diversification of the religious landscape of Barcelona over the past 10 years, and the newly visible presence of different religious groups in local communities. The city has undergone a shift from relative religious uniformity to a new level of plurality, and the city’s residents and government have had to adapt accordingly.
A report issued in April by the Ajuntament’s Oficina d’Afers Religiosos (OAR) established this diversity as fact, when it revealed that the number of non-Catholic places of worship has superseded those of the Catholic Church. The study revealed that there were 198 non-Catholic places of worship registered in 2008, whilst the number of Catholic churches in the city was 141. The figures suggested that other Christian and non-Christian religions such as Islam, Evangelism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Judaism and Buddhism seemed to be growing and, for the first time in the city’s history, the Catholic Church had lost its numerical advantage.
The power the Catholic Church has enjoyed in Spain is well known. Under Franco, Roman Catholicism was the only religion to enjoy legal status, the only one allowed to advertise services and the only religion with the right to own property and publish literature. It took the revised 1978 Constitution to finally confirm the religious freedom of the Spanish people and to begin the separation of church and state. The accommodation of religious plurality on an official level became increasingly important as Spain underwent the process of democratisation, and the need to incorporate principles of religious freedom into the government’s official framework was acknowledged in 1980 when the General Act of Religious Liberty was passed. The law established a provision in the granting of legal recognition to other religions, and alongside it the Register of Religious Entities was founded in which all new religious groups with a presence in Spain must sign.
However, representatives of some non-Catholic religions complain of a less-than-level playing field. “Projects for a purpose-built mosque in Barcelona have been around for 14 years, and the money is there to build one, but there have been constant problems with the Ajuntament,” Abdennur Prado, founder and president of the Junta Islàmica Catalana, told Metropolitan. “There have been problems with the location and with permits. It’s unbelievable that a city the size of Barcelona, with its cultural mix, does not have a purpose-built mosque.”
Cristina Monteys, from the OAR, said: “The city council tried to reach an agreement with all Muslim communities to have only one mosque for all. This agreement proved to be almost impossible, as there is a big diversity in the Muslim community by origin, religious doctrines, etc. And on the other hand, there was the issue of funding. None of the Muslim communities in Barcelona can afford this kind of project by themselves, and many (in the city council but also among Muslims) didn’t want Saudi money for many reasons. Since then, there has been little movement about this issue.”
Muslims are not the only religious group to have these problems. “There are many people from our countries who need spiritual help but have nowhere to celebrate,” said the evangelical pastor Javier Molina. This is thanks, in part, to the huge growth in foreign residents in the last few years. In Barcelona, this population rose from 121,375 in 2000 to 745,216 in 2008, according to l’Institut d’Estadística de Catalunya (Idescat). And with that shift has come different cultural practices and different religious bodies. “The Evangelical churches are the religious group that has grown up most in Barcelona in the last years, especially the Pentecostal churches, with a great number of Latin American members making up their numbers,” according to Cristina Monteys.
Churches such as those of the Latin American Pentecostal faiths, and the growing number of small Muslim mosques have appeared to provide for the changing religious and spiritual needs of the city. However, while the General Act of Religious Liberty bound local councils to officially recognise such new groups, problems can occur with their acceptance on a local level. Many of the groups meet in non-purpose-built premises and are forced to worship without an official place within the community. “In the beginning, it was difficult as some of the neighbours objected to the noise from the singing and to having many people congregate in one place,” said Javier Molina. “But we have many very friendly neighbours as well, who recognise the important work we’re doing.”
In July of this year, the Generalitat announced the passing of the Ley de Cultos. Billed by Vice President Josep-Lluís Carod-Rovira as “a pioneering law in Europe”, it sets out to facilitate the right to freedom of worship, establishes that municipalities must set aside space for places of worship and requires the issuing of a permit for the opening and use of all locations being used for religious practice. The requirement for municipalities to set aside space in future planning is a way to promote religious plurality at an official level, and by including these legal principles the Generalitat is at least recognising the need for increased tolerance.
However, some religious leaders are not sure whether, in practice, this will be beneficial. “There was an initial feeling that it [the new law] would be good for Muslims and would force the Ajuntament to provide places of worship,” said Abdennur Prado, who estimated there are around 170 small mosques in garages and other small premises in Catalunya, catering to an estimated 350,000 Muslims. “But the final draft looks like it could almost make things worse. The vast majority of the mosques in Catalunya do not comply with the regulations set out in the law.”
The issue was raised again recently by Barcelona’s mayor. On a trip to Morocco, Jordi Hereu defended the right of Catalan Muslims to have their own official mosque. Speaking at the Hassan II Mosque, one of the biggest in the world, he said, “In Catalunya there is a law [of places of worship] that expresses the need to develop these facilities and this is done from the autonomy of each of the religions.” He went on to stress, however, that it was not the place of the Ajuntament to decide where to build the temples, but to create the framework in order for the religious groups to be able to go ahead with these projects.
So whilst offices like the OAR, set up to promote and secure freedom of thought and religion and encourage inter-religious dialogue, seem to be doing all they can to promote religious liberty institutionally, it seems that many of the premises being used as places of worship do not comply with the new regulations and will have to close.
“Catalunya is once again giving a lesson in democratic modernity,” said Carod-Rovira, referring to the new law, but many of those who it will directly affect are not so sure.
It will not take too long to find out who’s right. The new law allots five years for religious groups and municipal bodies to comply with its conditions, so by 2015 it should be clear whether Catalunya is, in fact, practising what it preaches