Posts Tagged ‘Freedom of religion’


Sunday, November 28th, 2010

12 October 1492, painting by Brugada, Naval Museum, Madrid

On 12 October 1492, when land is sighted from the Pinta, one of the three ships in the expedition led by Christopher Colombus on behalf of the Spanish Crown, the “new world” is “discovered”.

With this momentous event, the year 1492 is usually celebrated as a landmark year in history. It must be remembered however for other developments which also happened in Spain and the consequences of which still resonate in today’s world.

Alhambra - Puerta de la Justicia

Alhambra - Puerta de la Justicia

On 2 January 1492, Granada, the last Muslim city left in Spain, surrenders to the Spanish Catholic monarchs, Isabel and Fernando. Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon lead a royal procession into the Alhambra, thus completing the reconquista, a period of almost 700 years during which Christian kings reconquered the Iberian peninsula from Islamic rule. Immediately, crosses and other Catholic symbols are placed in various part of the site, signalling a drastic change of religious obedience.

Between 25 November and 30 December 1491, Isabel and Fernando, had discussed, signed and ratified the Treaty of Granada with Muhammad XII, Sultan of Granada (known in Spanish as Boabdil). In addition to recognizing the sovereignty of the Catholic monarchs over Granada, the treaty, also known as the Capitulation of Granada, granted rights to the Moors as well as Jews, most importantly, the right to practice their faith.

Alhambra - Lion Courtyard

Alhambra - Lion Courtyard

Que sus altezas y sus sucesores para siempre jamás dejarán vivir al rey Abí Abdilehi y á sus alcaides, cadís, meftís, alguaciles, caudillos y hombres buenos y á todo el comun, chicos y grandes, en su ley, y no les consentirán quitar sus mezquitas ni sus torres ni los almuedanes, ni les tocarán en los habices y rentas que tienen para ellas, ni les perturbarán los usos y costumbres en que están.

Less than three months later, on 31 March 1492, the Alhambra Decree is issued which reverses the rights awarded in the Treaty of Granada and gives Jews and Muslims four months to convert to catholicism or leave Spain. According to the Decree, also known as the Edict of Expulsion, anyone remaining after 31 July who would not have converted would be killed.

Many Jews - with numbers varying between 130,000 and 800,000 - left Spain: about half went to Portugal, while others moved to North Africa and South-Eastern Europe. The Decree allowed them to take their belongings, but no gold, silver, or minted money. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Spanish Jews chose to remain and convert to Christianity.

The move to conversion had started a century before, as the only way to escape death following the 1391 pogroms that took place in Sevilla, but also in Valencia, and Barcelona. Converted Jews, known as conversos, over the years attained important positions such as physicians, bankers, and senior posts in the Catholic Church.

Calle de la Juderia Vieja, Segovia

Calle de la Juderia Vieja, Segovia

A Dominican friar from Seville convinced Queen Isabel that there were some crypto-jews among the conversos; those were called marranos. The Catholic monarchs turned to the Pope and asked for his assent for the creation of a tribunal called Inquisition to be created, that would be controlled by the Spanish Crown, the main object of which being to deal with the conversos. A papal bull was published in November 1478, and on 6 February 1481 the first auto de fe (act of faith) took place in Seville, with six people burned at the stake.

Queen Isabel’s confessor, the Archbishop of Granada Hernando de Talavera, is said to have been a converso. It is the same Talavera who first introduced Columbus to the Queen, and who was appointed to head a commission whose mandate was to make a recommendation on the validity of Colombus’ proposals. The Commission sat for a few years, but eventually Colombus was granted the authorization to go ahead with his project to discover a new route to India traveling West. Talavera was later accused of having a synagogue in his palace to be finally acquitted by the Inquisition; he died soon thereafter.

Two of Columbus’ most supportive patrons, who not only helped get the King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel’s approval but also finance the expedition, were also conversos, Luis de Santangel and Gabriel Sanchez. Following the success of the mission, the two patrons received identical letters from Colombus announcing his discoveries, and it is Santangel who brought the news to the Catholic sovereigns.

The right to rites

Sunday, April 19th, 2009

Or rather the right to celebrating rites.

Marking what initially were religious holidays can sometimes be the occasion of celebrations that bear little - if any - connection to the reason for the origin of the holiday.

St-Patrick's celebration, Beacon, NY

St-Patrick's celebration, Beacon, NY

An early celebration of St Patrick’s day recently in Beacon, NY, turned what had been an afternoon parade of strangely clad celebrants into an evening of police activity.

It was a beautiful, sunny day, the first one after a long period of sustained cold weather. People were ready to party. And party they did.

In true Irish tradition, the beer kept flowing throughout the afternoon, and flowed… a little bit too much. What had started as a day of enjoyment ended up with a confrontation between overly stimulated St Patrickers and a few police officers trying to bring law and order back to what is  otherwise usually a peaceful town.

Racing to celebrate, St Patrick's Day Celebration, Beacon, NY, 14 March 2009

Racing to the party, St Patrick's Day Celebration, Beacon, NY, 14 March 2009

Browsing through a guidebook of England evoked another modern day interpretation of ancient religious rites: the neo-druidic cult that has developed around Stonehenge. Reading up the guide entry reminded me that I had been fortunate enough to visit Stonehenge at a time when one could still walk right to the middle of the stone alignment. I remember imagining  what the place would have been like when the druids were worshiping there, and thinking of a more recent Tess of the d’Urbervilles.

The very physicality of ancient sites serves as a reminder that something happened there. The frequent mystery that surrounds the origins of these sites is usually an added incentive for researchers to find an explanation of what that something was. It may also encourage a modern day usage in a way that is thought to replicate the purpose for which the site was initially designed.

A few years following my visit, Stonehenge became enclosed to protect it from overly eager tourists, but maybe more importantly from the crowds of a revived druidic cult followers who, once a year, come to celebrate the summer solstice. According to these neo-druids, they should be granted full access to their place of worship. The English Heritage has obviously judged otherwise.

Whether it is about celebrating a religious in the manner one cares to mark it, or using a site according to the initial purpose for which it was designed, a question for consideration is the extent to which protecting the right to hold the celebration should be of concern at all, or whether such a right should be exercised in the manner the celebrant would chose.

Chesapeake, George Calvert and Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis, December 2008

Visiting Chesapeake recently was another opportunity to verify that discrimination based on religious belief has been a reality for many centuries.

As one reads up about the early days of American history, it quickly becomes very clear that a large number of the early discoverers and settlers wished to lead a life where they would be free to practice their religious beliefs.

The history of Maryland has been shaped by settlers and people who stood up for their rights. The similarities between two men who deeply influenced the future of the State - George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton - were a seredenpitous discovery. Thanks to a royal charter, the first Lord Baltimore - named after Baltimore, Ireland - basically created Maryland. By fighting on the side of independence from the British crown, Charles Carroll played a pivotal role in ensuring that Maryland became one of the 13 founding States. Both men were Catholic, and both men were subject to laws discriminating against Catholics.

This heritage may explain the Free to be Catholic sign which was on display on a religious building close to Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s house in Annapolis, in early December 2008.

Annapolis Church

Annapolis Church

George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, came to the New World in the hope of finding a refuge for English Catholics. After establishing Avalon, on the island of Newfoundland, he looked for a gentler climate and obtained a royal charter to settle the region that is now Maryland.

In England, Calvert’s family had had to suffer from two penal laws, enacted during the reign of Elizabeth I. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity of 1559 required that any citizen wishing to hold a high office would need to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The oath included a denial of the authority of the Pope over the church.

As a child, George was subjected to many forms of interference in the religious life of the Calvert family: they were compelled to attend church, one of his tutors having been denounced as popish, he and his brother were sent to a Protestant tutor. Catholic servants were banned, and the family was forced to purchase and display an English Bible. In 1593, his mother Grace was committed to the custody of an official responsible for prosecuting Catholics, a “pursuivant.”

After graduating from Oxford, Calvert occupied several positions that led him to becoming one of the two principal Secretaries of State of King James in 1619. As a member of a commission, Calvert in 1613 had to recommend for Catholic schools to be suppressed in Ireland.

Early on, Calvert demonstrated interest in the exploration of the New World, and he invested money in the Virginia Company and the East India Company. When he obtained the position of Commissioner of the Treasury, with rights on the duties collected on imported raw silk, his fortune was secured. In 1620, Calvert purchased a tract of land in Newfoundland.

In 1625, shortly after he resigned his Secretariat position, his conversion to Catholicism became public knowledge. He had retained his place on the Privy Council, a position he had to also abandon when King Charles I required all privy councilors to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance.

After having moved to Ireland, Calvert decided to pursue his interest in Avalon, the colony he had established in Newfoundland  where he promoted free religious worship, allowing  Catholics to worship in one part of his house and the Protestants in another.

One winter in Avalon was enough to convince him that the rigorous climate was not suited for his colony, and he moved to Jamestown in Virginia, where he knew tobacco could be grown. Upon his refusing to sign the oaths of supremacy and allegiance there, he had to leave and go back to England where he fought for a charter granting him rights over a piece of land on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. The charter was finally granted on 20 June 1632, five weeks after his death, and Maryland became a refuge for British Catholics, who emigrated to settle tobacco plantations.

A century and a half later, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. The son of a wealthy plantation owner of Irish descent, he was born in 1737 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

At the age of eight, he was sent to France where he studied at a college run by English Jesuits in Saint-Omer, and then in Paris, at Louis le Grand. Having started to study law in Bourges and Paris, in 1757, he moved to London to complete his legal education and returned to Maryland in 1765.

Under laws of the British Colonies - similar to those that forced Calvert to resign his Cabinet position - as a Roman Catholic, Carroll was deprived of political rights, including the right to vote.

After the passage of the Stamp Act, and the exorbitant taxes imposed by Maryland Governor Eden, Carroll  became actively involved politically and started writing in the Maryland Gazette, under the name The First Citizen, defending the colonies rights to control their own taxation, and arguing for a return to natural law.

A member of the Annapolis Convention, in early 1776, he was sent to Canada by the Continental Congress along with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase. Their mission was to persuade the Canadian colonies to relinquish their allegiance to the British crown, and join the American colonies in their fight for independence.  Although the mission to Canada failed, Carroll became instrumental in convincing a reserved Maryland Convention to vote for independence.

On July 4, 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress, and while he was too late to vote for it, he signed the Declaration of Independence, which was officially signed by all members of Congress on an engrossed on parchment version, on August, 2, 1776.

Signing the Declaration entailed a risk for all the signers - as they exposed themselves to confiscation of their properties - but maybe more so for Charles Carroll, considered to be the colonies’ wealthiest individual. Recognizing this, he made sure to add of Carrollton to his signature to ensure that he would be properly identified.

Carroll died at 95 in 1832, two centuries after Calvert, and at the time of his death, as the longest living signer of the Declaration, was regarded with veneration by the American people.

Why rights from the start

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Amnesty International 2000 Campaign - Vanity Fair

Amnesty International 2000 Campaign - Vanity Fair

Last week, in Albany, NY, dozens of Protestants were forced from their church at gunpoint by local authorities. Three ministers and 23 others were executed and buried in a mass grave a few miles west of town. Thousands more were forced to abandon their homes and leave the state or risk execution.

The surprising news, published in January 2001 in Vanity Fair, must have come as a shock to the magazine readership, more used to the latest from Hollywood or the world of fashion.  Both text and layout looked like the beginning of a regular article. The second paragraph immediately reassured the potentially alarmed reader.

This didn’t happen in Albany. Or Chicago. Or Tucson. But what if it did? How would you feel? What would you do? Horrible acts against human rights are committed all over the world every day. This one actually happened in East Timor in 1999 to 26 people including women, children and three Catholic priests. They were seeking sanctuary in their church from anti-independence militia units organized by the Indonesian military. Tens of thousands who fled the region to save their lives remain trapped in refugee camps.

What can you do to help? Write a letter. Write an e-mail. Write a check. Become one of Amnesty International’s one million members today… Human rights violations can happen anytime, anywhere - even here.

Such acts are violations of human rights, whether they happen in the United States or elsewhere. And similar events actually happen in other parts of the world, and sometimes are part of daily life for citizens of some countries. Once this reality established, Amnesty International reveals itself and calls for support. If the news were reported as happening in country where these may be daily almost ordinary occurences, it is likely that they would have attracted less attention. For the reader to  perceive them as extraordinary, the facts were transposed to a context where they are going to be truly shocking : as part of the advocacy campaign, the events were transposed from East Timor to Albany, NY.

A single word was sufficient to make the events even worse: Protestant. In an American context, the alleged victims had to be Protestant. Why was this change of religion necessary: would Catholic victims not have been considered as equally worthy of compassion?

This necessary double transposition of the facts, location and religion, started me thinking  about the universal recognition of human rights. And I decided to look at the extent to which human rights concepts are recognized in every part of the world, by different cultures and religions, and also whether - if recognized - human rights were to be applied across the board, without any discrimination.