Friday, 17 June 2016

Lessons From Menorca - Religious Intolerance

Statue of Jesus on Menorca's highest point - Monte Toro
As I said in my previous post, Menorca has a lot of history, having a large natural harbour and occupying a strategic location almost midway between the Spanish mainland and Italian Sardinia and relatively close to France.

At the end of the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage, Minorca fell under Roman control. By the fifth century it had acquired a large Jewish population which seems to have coexisted more or less peacefully with the predominantly Christian population. However, this was not to last.

In 415 AD there was a forced conversion of the Jews as related by a bishop Severus in The Letter on the Conversion of the Jews. 540 Jews were forcibly baptised, including many of the leading and most wealthy members of the community. Those that remained were expelled to the centre of the island. The synagogues were burned. However, many Jewish families retained their religion whilst showing an outward appearance of Christianity. These went on to form the persecuted and shunned Xueta community with it's distinct form of non-Catholic Christianity.

Ironically, it was the increase in religious freedom and tolerance in the latter half of the twentieth century which lessened the sense of community which had held this group together so that today many of those with Xueta surnames are unaware of their own social and religious history. This may seem surprising until one considers one of the forces maintaining religious identity is in-group versus out-group identity. Once these barriers and divisions are broken down, the sense of belonging it gave to members of a particular sect is lost. Faith is not so much a statement of belief but a badge of identity.

When Menorca became a British possession in 1713, non Catholics, including Jews were actively encouraged to immigrate to the island, setting up social tension and hostility with the predominantly Catholic population which culminated in a denunciation of them by the Catholic clergy for daring to apply to use a room in Mahon as a synagogue. In 1781, following an invasion of Menorca by Louis des Balbes de Berton de Crillon, duc de Mahon, the entire Jewish population of about 500 was ordered to leave the island within four days. They were summarily rounded up, loaded onto four Spanish ships and dumped in the French port of Marseilles.

It was not only the Jews who had been persecuted of course, as each major naval power in the area exerted its control over the islands.

Looking south from Monte Toro.
In the fifth century, the Germanic Vandals who had migrated through Spain into North Africa and established a state centered on the old Carthage, now Tunis, invaded Menorca with their own version of Christianity known as Arianism which rejected the trinity. It was reconquered by the Byzantine Empire (as the Eastern Roman Empire based in Byzantium (Constantinople) is known by historians - the inhabitants continued to call it Rome) in 534 CE.

Following the Moorish invasion as Islam spread rapidly across North Africa and into the Iberian Peninsula, Menorca was annexed to the Caliphate of Córdoba and many Moors (Berbers of North African origin) migrated to the island. It is not know what happened to the Catholic Christian population during this period.

In 1231, Christian forces conquered Majorca and Menorca became an independent Islamic state, albeit a tributary state to the Christian King James I of Aragon. This lasted until 17 January 1287, celebrated today as Menorca's national day, when Alphonse III of Aragon invaded. The Muslim population was either forcibly converted to Christianity or rounded up and sold as slaves in the slave markets of Ibiza, Valencia and Barcelona.

Menorca, along with the other Balearic Islands, has remained Catholic ever since, subject only to Ottoman Turkish attacks which destroyed Mahon, then the capital Ciutadella during the sixteenth century, along with an attempt to establish settlements. Islamic pirates operating from North Africa attacked and looted Mahon at about the same time, taking some 6,000 Christians as slaves.

With a very few exceptions, the history of Menorca, like the history of Majorca and the Spanish mainland, has been one of religious intolerance, persecution and forced conversions. Rarely have the people of the island converted to or from any religion voluntarily following peaceful debate and proselytising. As always, the religion of the people has never been about evidence-based or logic-based belief but about a label of identity, either forcibly pinned on them or pinned on them by their parents. All the major religions claim to be religions of peace, love and tolerance and yet none of them has ever succeeded without force, threats and persecution.

The survival for over a thousand years of the persecuted and ostracised crypto-Christian sect of the Xueta community, and its virtual disappearance under religious tolerance in the twentieth century, illustrates well that membership of a 'faith' is an identity rather than a belief system. Remove the in-group identity and 'faith' has no value. In less than a century all that remains of this community are some distinct surnames. Religions only succeed by division and conflict.


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