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Spain Approves Proposed Accord Giving Judaism Official Status

The Spanish government has given a major boost to a historic accord that would grant the 12,000-member Jewish community of Spain a status almost identical to that of the Roman Catholic Church.

The accord, which was drawn up two years ago and signed a few days before the 500th anniversary of the edict expelling Spain’s Jews, was approved last Friday by the government’s Council of Ministers.

Two other agreements, with the 300,000-strong Moslem community and Spain’s 250,000 Protestants, were reviewed at the same time.

The accords’ conversion into legislation, expected before the summer months, has been described by the daily El Pais as "the end of a situation of religious intolerance in this country."

Catholicism has remained Spain’s sole recognized creed since King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella unified the country under one religion after ordering the expulsion of the Jews and Moslems five centuries ago.

The Inquisition, which was abolished only in 1834, punished any deviance from the faith. A 19th-century traveler like Englishman George Borrow risked fines and imprisonment for trying to hand out Protestant Bibles.

Spain evaded the modern age during Gen. Francisco Franco’s dictatorship from 1939 until his death in 1975. The 1978 Constitution guaranteed freedom of worship, but only the Catholic Church was able to receive donations from official tax forms or temporary government financing, through an agreement with the Vatican.

In the new accord, the Jewish community will be granted tax-exempt status on real estate and other holdings, member donations will be tax deductible, religious marriages performed by rabbis will be considered valid as civil marriages, and Jewish education will be available in public schools to pupils who request it.

ORTHODOX WOULD RETAIN AUTHORITY

Some people are wary of the accord because the government provides the Federation of Jewish Communities — an umbrella organization for the communities, most of which consider themselves Orthodox — the sole power over kashrut, selection and certification of rabbis, education and every other aspect of Jewish life in Spain.

According to Samuel Toledano, head of the federation, the accords would not necessarily shut out other groups that in the future might want to incorporate into the federation. But he said he would try to prevent the creation of another community in a city where one already exists.

"If we were more numerous, then there would be no problem," he said. "But another community, say in Madrid, which, though the largest, only has 3,000 people, would weaken the establishment. It would be difficult to determine who would be in charge of the school or burials."

Some 12,000 people — hailing mostly from Morocco — belong to Spain’s 12 Jewish communities. But there are an estimated 3,000 to 12,000 disenfranchised Jews, from Argentina and other nations of Latin America, who have not been able to fit into the communities.

Last week, just as King Juan Carlos spoke on reconciliation of the Sephardi communities and the Spanish crown, a group of young Argentine Jews from a newly formed association called Hebraica, rented a building to organize activities for themselves and their children.

Although the group has billed itself as a cultural entity, if it is successful enough, it could become a gathering point for the Jews who cannot find common ground with the established community’s Orthodox ritual.

An alternative synagogue is not spoken about for fear of alienating the community, but it has not been ruled out in private.

"It would be chaotic if there were more than one spokesman for the Jewish community when it comes to dealing with the government," Toledano said. "Whatever problems we might have we will have to iron out between ourselves."

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