When I was an infant at school one of the first Christmas carols I learnt was “Away in a Manger”. Today – Away with the Manger – holds true in the Spanish State Prosecutor’s HQ.
Last week the country’s finest legal minds clashed in Madrid over whether a Belén nativity scene should be displayed in the entrance hall of the State prosecutor’s office.
Lawyer Olga Sanchez decided to place the small display in the hall but hours later top judge Pilar Barrero objected to its presence – on constitutional grounds. She argued that placing a religious symbol in the entrance violated Spain’s 1978 constitution, which ensures the separation of Church and State.
Some lawyers came to the Belén’s aid arguing that a nativity scene was a cultural tradition rather than a religious one. However the number two at the prosecutor’s office, Juan Martín Casallo, was not convinced and ordered its removal.
Yesterday I saw an enormous Belén that appears every year in the Convento de Santo Domingo in Ronda under the aegis of the town hall. On the days after Christmas there is a Belén Viviente, a living nativity scene, along with a market in Ronda’s old town. In the exhibition hall of the Unicaja saving bank there is an annual display of various Belén scences that the financial institution arranges in many of the towns and cities of Andalucía.
Whilst there may be a separation of Church and State under the constitution the fact is that regional and municipal authorities still arrange or host Belén events, many of which such as the Belén Viviente in Arcos de la Frontera and Ubrique are also major tourism attractions.
Symbols of Catholicism remain prominent in public life 30 years after the end of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco who had raised Catholicism to the level of a "state religion." Spain’s Socialist government is preparing a law on religious freedom that aims to give greater respect for religious diversity and secularism. I have mentioned in this column before my belief that the Zapatero administration is seeking to establish Spain as the most liberal nation in Europe, not because the new laws are needed, desired or right, but purely as an antidote to the Franco era.
Tampering with a nation’s core beliefs and traditions does not work as can be seen in Russia where after generations of adherence to atheism the Russian Orthodox Church has returned stronger than ever.
Spain may be becoming an increasingly secular nation but that is not lessening its devotion to local patrons, Semana Santa or the Christmas traditions. Any government that attempts to interfere in those devotions does so at its peril.