Descendants of 16th century Jewish refugees may claim Portuguese citizenship


(JTA) — The Portuguese parliament passed legislation facilitating the naturalization of descendants of 16th-century Jews who fled because of religious persecution.

The motion, which was submitted by the Socialist and Center Right parties, was read Thursday in parliament and approved unanimously Friday as an amendment to Portugal’s Law on Nationality.

It allows descendants of Jews who were expelled in the 16th century to become citizens if they “belong to a Sephardic community of Portuguese origin with ties to Portugal,” according to Jose Oulman Carp, president of Portugal’s Jewish community.

Applicants must be able to show “Sephardic names.” Another factor is “the language spoken at home” — a reference which also applies to Ladino. The amendment also says applicants need not reside in Portugal, an exception to the requirement of six years of consecutive residency in Portugal for any applicant for citizenship. 

“The next step is the creation of a bureaucratic framework for reviewing applications, which will probably involve the Jewish community of Lisbon and government officials,” said Carp, who has lobbied for several years for the amendment. He called it “a huge development.” 

The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1536 and resulted in massive expulsion and forced conversion to Christianity. Portugal had a Jewish population of about 400,000, many of them refugees from neighboring Spain, where the Inquisition started in 1481 and intensified with royal decrees in 1492 and 1501. Spanish lawmakers are said to be drafting a similar motion.

Carp is hoping the measure will help attract new members to the country’s Jewish community of 1,000 to 1,500. “I expect the amendment will attract some interest from members of the Jewish community of Turkey, a country which absorbed many Portuguese immigrants,” he said. 

Popular support for the motion stems from a desire to “make amends” for a dark historic chapter in Portugal, a country Carp describes as being “virtually free of anti-Semitism.” Some also hope the law would attract investments by Jews seeking to settle in Portugal, one of the European Union’s most vulnerable economies.

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