‘We want action’: call to return former Toledo synagogue to Jewish community

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Spains Catholic church owns Santa Mara la Blanca, now a popular museum, but shows little interest in giving it back

Among the fans, parasols and knick-knacks in the gift shop of the Santa Mara la Blanca museum are bottles of kosher wine and tiles painted with menorahs and magens David.

They are testament to the fact that, despite its name not to mention its incarnations as a church, a barracks and a warehouse the museum began its life in the 12th century as Toledos main synagogue.

Today, the mudjar masterpiece is one of citys most popular tourist attractions, a building whose walls and pillars reflect the interplay of three different cultures: Christian, Jewish and Islamic.

Visitors armed with selfie sticks and headsets mill between its white horseshoe arches, peering down at the tiled floor or up at the cherubs and christograms that sit alongside the geometric patterns.

Although Santa Mara la Blanca has not been a synagogue since it was seized and turned into a church at the beginning of the 15th century, some feel the time has come for it to be returned to the Jewish community.

Isaac Querub, the president of Spains Federation of Jewish Communities, is calling on the archbishop of Toledo to demonstrate the churchs commitment to interfaith relations through the symbolic gesture of handing back the building.

More than five centuries after Ferdinand and Isabella ordered Spains Jews to convert or leave the country and 42 years after Pope Paul VI repudiated antisemitism and called for mutual understanding and respect between Roman Catholics and Jews Querub claims the Spanish church is lagging behind society when it comes to atoning for the mistakes of the past.

Tile showing the magen David at Santa Mara gift shop. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The winds of Rome have blown very weakly in Spain, he said. The gestures of John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis seem to be reaching Spain very late or not at all.

He pointed to the Spanish governments recent decision to introduce a law offering citizenship to the descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492, arguing that Spain had taken giant steps towards dealing with the sins of its past.

But he said: Why wont the Catholic church in Spain do the same? When someone sincerely recognises that theyve made an error and tries to fix an injustice, they become a better person. Its the same thing: Spain is a better place and its society has made progress. No political party opposed the law. Frankly, it was just extremely positive. The same thing needs to happen with the church: there needs to be Judeo-Christian dialogue.

Querub says he wrote to the archbishop of Toledo, Braulio Rodrguez Plaza, last year to request a meeting on the issue but is still awaiting an answer.

And the archdiocese of Toledo shows few signs of contemplating any return of the building. In a three-page statement, it said the churchs ownership of the now-deconsecrated building was perfectly clear and that the government had restored Santa Mara la Blanca to the care of the archdiocese through a local parish in 1929.

It said that the archbishop had met Querub twice most recently in November last year adding: They agreed to meet again after Christmas, but neither Mr Querub nor anyone acting on his behalf has asked in writing for an official meeting, which is why the archbishop has been unable to respond to his request.

The statement also pointed out that the proceeds from the museum went on the upkeep of other buildings in the archdiocese and that the archbishop had spent almost 800,000 (685,000) on conserving the building since 2013.

It concluded with a reminder that the nearby Sinagoga del Trnsitobelonged to the government, rather then the church.

The archbishop of Madrid, Cardinal Carlos Osoro Sierra, recently struck a more conciliatory note and emphasised the need for dialogue. Gestures that bring us together and help us all are good, he told El Pas. Of course I think theyre good. Santa Mara la Blanca needs to be a meeting place.

However, a spokesman for the archdiocese of Madrid told the Guardian that the cardinal had been talking in general terms and had not offered an opinion on whether the building ought to be handed back.

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