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Religious liberty in Spain today

Category Articles
Date January 9, 2002


The tragedy is that we had reformers, but we did not have a Reformation!

In much of Europe, either the Roman Catholic or Orthodox Church have enjoyed a privileged position with a dominant influence on culture, whilst Evangelicals have been a small and sometimes persecuted minority. A pan-European forum was held in Paris last year, seeking biblical direction on how religion and State relate to one another around the continent. There were several case studies with speakers from Bulgaria, Turkey, France and Britain. The European Evangelical Alliance, which convened the meeting in co-operation with the Culture, Values and Politics track of Hope of Europe, invited me to speak on religious liberty in Roman Catholic countries like Spain.

The Spanish first minister during the last period of Franco’s dictatorship in the 1970s was Admiral Carrero Blanco, who was killed by the Basque terrorist organisation ETA. He used to say ‘Spain is Catholic, or it is nothing’. This idea was behind the so-called ‘national Catholicism’ imposed by the military government of General Franco in the 1940s. It had its roots in the authoritarian idea of the Catholic Kings to bring together the different kingdoms of our land under the unity of the Church. For that it was necessary to expel first the Muslims and then the Jews in 1492, so that we could be ‘more popish than the Pope’.

In the sixteenth century it was not unthinkable that Spain could have a Reformation. Many nobles and clergymen were attracted to the study of the Bible. Some of them discovered the truths of salvation by the merits of Christ alone. Even the head of the Spanish Church, the Archbishop of Toledo, was accused of Lutheranism. Carranza suffered in prison, but the Inquisition brought to the stake some of the most influential men and women of Spanish society, who had become Protestant by the preaching of the Gospel in such important places as the Cathedral of Seville.

Some converted monks were able to escape to Calvin’s Geneva, travelling all around Europe serving churches of refugees. One of them, Casiodoro Reina, wrote in London a Confession of Faith and he translated for the first time the Bible into Spanish from the original languages before the King James version appeared in Britain. These men were still persecuted by secret agents of the Spanish Inquisition. They went from one place to another having all sorts of troubles even with Protestant authorities. The tragedy is that we had reformers, but we did not have a Reformation!

Liberty or tolerance?

It was only at the beginning of the nineteenth century when Spain became more tolerant with foreign Protestants who wanted to travel all around the country. This was the way the London Bible Society tried to introduce the Scriptures in the middle of a series of civil wars. The eccentric character of the romantic poet and writer, George Borrow, was tolerated until he printed a Roman Catholic translation of the New Testament without notes or commentaries. Then he was put into prison in Madrid and all the copies were confiscated. But Protestant missionary work started then in the British Rock of Gibraltar which Spain is still claiming. A Methodist preacher, Rule, started to smuggle Bibles and Evangelical literature into Spain.

Some Spanish men were converted, but they ended up in prison or exile, some of them escaping to Gibraltar. That was a shelter for Spanish liberal military men, Jews, free thinkers, Masons and Protestants, who started a Spanish Christian Church on the Rock, independent of Rome. The first Spanish congregation had been established during a liberal revolution in the southern city of Cadiz in 1838. The Spanish Evangelical Alliance was founded then in 1877, being legally registered in 1914. Schools, magazines, hospitals, publishing houses, old people’s homes and orphanages were started by Protestants during the two Republics, which ended with the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

When General Franco came to power in 1939 most of our buildings were closed, many Protestants were killed, brought to prison or they had to go to other countries. There was no religious liberty in Spain. The Spanish Evangelical Alliance organised an Evangelical Defence Committee in 1956, and through the World Evangelical Fellowship pressure came from foreign governments to the Spanish authorities demanding more tolerance in religious affairs. A law came in 1967, but according to the official spokesmen, there was always freedom of worship in Spain because embassies had their own chapels for centuries and Spanish people were all of course Roman Catholic! It was only with the democratic Constitution in 1978 that religious liberty came to Spain with an organic law in 1980.

Is there any discrimination now?

The Spanish socialist government brought a co-operation agreement between Protestants, Jews, Muslims and the Spanish government in 1992. But the State also promised to continue giving the Roman Catholic Church full financial support. The Government is now paying 90.8 per cent of its budget, 23,929 million pesetas (143,816 euros) to the Episcopal Conference. If this was not enough, because of an international agreement with the Vatican, the Roman Church has such a diplomatic status, that they don’t pay any sort of taxes at all. They are not registered anywhere. Parishes can be opened everywhere without any requirement. Their associations don’t follow any general rule, and the only religious foundations legally allowed by the government are Roman Catholic. They have free justice and the only right to have chaplains in the Army, hospitals and prisons.

How is this situation justified in a non-confessional State, according to our present democratic Constitution? If we believe the last official statistics of the Government, the truth is that 85 per cent of the Spanish population still consider themselves Catholic, even if they never go to Mass. Only one of every three Spaniards give part of their taxes to ‘the Church’ (other churches are only ‘religious entities’!). The rest give it to social non-government organisations (which are of course most of them Roman Catholic!). But if 94.3 per cent of Spanish children are still baptised, it means they are all ‘Catholic’.

What happens with Evangelicals now in Spain? Although new laws have expanded religious liberty, such guarantees have yet to translate into greater acceptance of Protestantism within Spanish society. Overall, Spain has become a very materialistic country. There is very little interest in spiritual issues. But there is the feeling that if there is a religion, the only serious one is Catholicism. Evangelicals are routinely portrayed in the media as dangerous cult members. The problem is that we signed accords with the State, but not with society. The Roman Catholic Church has carried out many campaigns against sects, giving the impression that everything that is not Catholic is a cult. Most Spaniards do not distinguish between Evangelicals and the scores of sects which have entered Spain in the last two decades.

Evangelicals are concentrated primarily in urban areas in Spain. Most of the 7,500 towns without churches have populations of fewer than 5,000 people. But still there are 580 towns with a population of more than 5,000 without an Evangelical presence. There are more opportunities than ever to preach the Gospel in Spain, but there are not enough workers. Do you think of Spain as a mission field? Roman Catholic countries need the Gospel too. Would you like to pray for them?

José de Segovia Barrón

Vision of Europe, Jan – March 2002, European Missionary Fellowship, ‘Guessens,’ 6 Codicote Road, Welwyn, AL6 9NB (with permission).

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