TOLEDO, Spain (AP) -- After the expulsion of Spain's Jews in 1492, the granite tombstones in the courtyard of the old Samuel ha-Levi synagogue were stolen to pave roads.
Today, despite the countless carriage wheels that trundled over them, the graves survive: a clear testament to the destruction of what was once the world's largest Jewish community.
Now Spain's Roman Catholic bishops want Pope John Paul II to canonize Queen Isabella I who, along with husband King Ferdinand II, issued the edict giving Spain's estimated 100,000 Jews the stark choice of becoming Christians or fleeing the country.
Supporters regard Isabella as a pious and powerful leader, but dissenters -- both Jewish and non-Jewish -- see the drive for canonization as a weak attempt by clerical leaders to divert attention from scandal and division within the church.
The Star of David is seen on a plate in a shop window in the old Jewish quarter of Toledo , Spain, April 28, 2002. Spain's Roman Catholic church is playing down the importance of its 1492 expulsion from Spain of Jews by asking the Pope to beatify Queen Isabella I, a step leading to canonization.
AP Photo/Denis Doyle
No one would argue that Isabella and Ferdinand are among Spain's best-known rulers.
Aside from funding the Atlantic crossing of Christopher Columbus and spreading Christianity to the New World, the ''Catholic Monarchs'' -- a papal title conferred on Isabella and Ferdinand two years after the expulsion -- also established the dreaded Spanish Inquisition.
Led by the fanatical inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada, the tribunal employed diabolical torture methods and condemned hundreds, perhaps thousands, of supposed ''Judaizers'' and heretics to be burnt at the stake. The inquisition was abolished only in 1834.
''Throughout history, great efforts have been made in Spain to equate Jews with wickedness, with perfidy, with ritual crimes,'' said Santiago Palomero, Catholic-born curator of the Museo Sefardi, housed in the ornate Samuel ha-Levi synagogue which was converted to a church after the expulsion.
Recalling his elementary schoolteachers' anti-Semitic lessons in the 1950s, Palomero accused the bishops of taking a page from their predecessors to divert attention from recent scandals by seeking to canonize Isabella.
''Who do they think they are?'' said Palomero, whose cramped office in the 14th century synagogue overlooks the display of desecrated graves in the courtyard.
The queen's modern-day fans see her not as a religious bigot, but rather as a maligned monarch. They say she unified Spain after decades of warfare, brought Jesus Christ's message of salvation to millions and argue that -- despite her official pronouncements -- some of her closest advisers were Jews.
''She was a great defender of the Jewish people,'' said Covadonga Santos of the church's Isabella the Catholic Commission, the panel promoting her canonization.
At a February conclave, the Spanish bishops' conference voted to revive Isabella's cause for beatification, which had effectively been shelved since it was proposed in 1957 by the Archbishop of Valladolid.
The vote has sparked protests, both in Spain and abroad, reminiscent of the September 2000 beatification of Pope Pius IX, who condoned the seizure of a Jewish boy to be raised as a Catholic, and the proposed beatification of Pius XII, whom Jewish groups fault for failing to speak out publicly against the Holocaust.
Abraham Foxman, director of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, said he hoped the Isabella proposal ''will fall on deaf ears in the Vatican.''
''Queen Isabella has a dark mark in history of being anti-Semitically cruel and setting a standard that other countries followed,'' he said.
Like its U.S. counterpart, the Spanish church has seen its share of unfavorable headlines recently -- a priest arrested for child pornography, another openly homosexual, a third marrying a Peruvian nun he met on the Internet, and millions of dollars in charitable contributions deposited in shady investment schemes.
It is also battling a rebellion by liberal clergy who want to do away with celibacy and accept women as priests.
''A gigantic abyss is growing between the hierarchy and many of the faithful,'' said Emilia Robles, who belongs to a Catholic group trying to promote church dialogue with dissenters. So the bishops, she said, are seeking ''defense mechanisms'' such as Isabella, a symbol of Spanish national unity.
While the Vatican has yet to respond to the canonization request, the church commission is hoping the bishops' decision will enable Isabella's canonization in 2004, the 500th anniversary of her death.
''We thought the delay was because of the Jewish issue,'' Santos said. ''But Rome was telling us they thought there was a lack of interest among Spanish bishops.''
Despite pervasive secularization in Spain since the end of the church-backed dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco, Isabella remains a key historical figure, comparable, in a way, to George Washington.
Elementary schoolchildren learn that Isabella and Ferdinand united Spain's kingdoms for the first time after driving out the Muslims of Andalusia.
Proponents of canonization say Isabella lived a life of saintly devotion, doing her best to protect Jews and indigenous populations and trying to restrain the excesses of conquistadors and missionaries she sent to Latin America.
''Queen Isabel was a living servant of Christ, forever concerned about the Christian renewal of her people and the missionary evangelization,'' the current Archbishop of Valladolid, Jose Delicado Baeza, wrote in a prologue to a book on the queen sponsored by the commission.
According to the church commission, Isabella's persona has been sullied by the ''Black Legend,'' a smear campaign historians have traced to Spain's 16th century archenemies, Holland and Britain. The legend exaggerated the Inquisition's torture chambers to portray Catholicism as a tyrannical faith.
''It seems the Inquisition created less terror than was originally thought,'' said Santos, who blames the expulsion on commoners and nobles who envied the power and wealth of the Jews and forced the monarchs to turn on their Jewish friends.
A chronology of Isabella's life published by the commission says that in 1492 Isabella and her husband ''revoked the permission of the Jews to stay in their realm.''
Such arguments have done little to convince tourists of many faiths who flock to Toledo to see what was once a cultural and intellectual melting pot of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
''It's outrageous,'' said Manuel de Santaren, a Roman Catholic from Boston whose ancestors were Spanish.
''She was responsible for the destruction of a potentially amazing renaissance in this country,'' the interior designer said while walking down Toledo's cobblestone streets toward the Museo Sefardi with a Jewish friend.
''A saint?'' said Marta Cerezo, another Roman Catholic from Mexico. ''No way.''
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