Proxy Battle of Catalonian Independence Leads to Church “Rebellion”

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The war for Catalonian independence continues to take a heavy toll on the Churches in Barbastro-Monzón and Lérida. The fight over 111 pieces of artwork claimed by the first of these dioceses – in Aragón – but currently held in the second – in Catalonia – has stepped up in intensity, with lawyers for the diocese of Barbastro-Monzón accusing the Bishop of Lérida, Salvador Giménez, of acting “scandalously and immorally” and even of mounting an ecclesiastical “rebellion”.

The battle for the artworks of the Franja de Ponent (the “Western Strip”; the Catalan-speaking eastern region of Aragón) flared up in early May when the Museum and Diocese of Lérida appealed against civil sentences that mandated the return of the pieces to Barbastro. On several occasions since 1995 – the year in which the Vatican decided to sever parishes of the strip from the Church of Lérida to add them to the Church of Barbastro – both civil and ecclesiastical courts have ordered that the artworks return to Aragón.

In 2002, both the Congregation for Bishops and the Apostolic Signatura in the Vatican dictated that the pieces in dispute should return to Barbastro-Monzón – a sentence confirmed in 2008 by the Roman Rota, the Church’s ‘Supreme Court’. In 2015 the Spanish Supreme Court also found the artworks are Aragonese for all intents and purposes, but Bishop Giménez and the Diocese of Lérida refuse to give up the pieces – encouraged, as they have been, by the Catalonian government, which in 2015 declared the artworks of the Franja “Catalan patrimony”.

“Unprecedented”, “absolute nonsense” and the “fruit of desperation and pessimism”

Not even the fact that 43 Aragonese parishes sued again in February 2018 for the return of the artworks has been enough to move the Diocese of Lérida. In their new appeal, Bishop Giménez and his lawyers continue to argue that since at least 88 of the 111 artworks belong in Catalonian territory, it would be illegal to break apart the collection. A claim that has raised the ire of the lawyers Joaquín Guerrero and Jorge Español, for the Diocese of Barbastro-Monzón, who have blasted the argument as “unprecedented”, “absolute nonsense” and the “fruit of desperation and pessimism”.

What’s likely to happen now with the artworks, then, given the obstructionist attitude of the Diocese of Lérida? An important precedent is to be found in the police action that took place in December 2017, when the Spanish Civil Guard entered the Museum of Lérida to take back, by force, 44 pieces of sacred artwork claimed by the Monastery of Sijena, in Aragón. But if the courts were once again to call on the police in the case of the artworks of the Franja it would be a sad outcome indeed, since the confiscation of the Sijena artworks led to the police using violence against the five hundred or so pro-Catalan protesters that had gathered in the surroundings of the Museum of Lérida.

The controversy over the artworks of the “Eastern strip” of Aragón is a powderkeg waiting to go off and, as such, a reminder that even with the election of the new Catalonian president the separatist tensions in the region have far from fizzled out.

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