Churches, Mosques and Temples: Who Came First?

Churches, Mosques and Temples: Who Came First? September 15, 2017

One really divisive issue in European religion these days concerns the question of “Who came first?” and who is properly entitled to own great buildings and places of worship. This is a grave matter separating Muslims and Christians. The topic has been in the press recently, though, for less weighty reasons.

The issue focuses on such great buildings as the mighty cathedral of Córdoba, in southern Spain, built on the site of a mosque, and incorporating large sections of that older structure. So should Spain’s restored Muslim community have any rights to that building, or even to reclaim it altogether? No, say  Catholics, because the mosque was built on an ancient Christian church dedicated to St. Vincent of Lérins. On the third hand, that church was almost certainly built on an older Romano-Celtic temple. So who wins? De facto, present possession decides future ownership.

Similar stories encompass many other great churches and mosques scattered over Europe and the Mediterranean world.

Recently the English Daily Telegraph published a startling story headlined “Pagans demand return of church buildings ‘stolen’ 1,300 years ago.” Reportedly, the Odinist Fellowship has noted that many early Christian churches were built on or within older Anglo-Saxon pagan temples, and they would like the symbolic restoration of at least two of these edifices, one in each of the great archdioceses. This would provide some recompense for “spiritual genocide.” As the group writes, “We wish you to be aware that the great majority of Odinists believe that honor requires the English church to issue a public apology for its former crimes against the Odinists.” Britain’s Odinists, incidentally, run at most a thousand strong.

There are multiple problems with this request, not least that all British and European pagan groups are historically very new, developed after the Romantic movement, and England’s Odinists were formally organized only in 1988. (I have posted quite a bit on the very modern roots of neopaganism). They thus have zero connection with the Anglo-Saxon pagans of the seventh century, whose temples were appropriated.

But as in the Córdoba example, the question of priority also surfaces in this story. The Telegraph quotes historian James Palmer, of the University of St Andrews, who plausibly notes that “many of the pagan temples had been originally converted from Christian churches left behind by the Romans, who had left at the start of the fifth century”:

“It’s all very nice of the Odinists to say that the English were there and they’re pagans, but actually the British were there too, and they were Christians,” he said. “They’ve only been ancestral lands for at best a hundred years before the pagans turn up, and it is most likely that any pagan temples were on old church sites. “I think it’s all a bit of tit for tat. If you can claim that the church took the land off the pagans, they had taken it off Christians to start with.”

Christians and Muslims might indeed have some reckoning up to do with Europe’s old places of worship, as do Jews. With a couple of possible exceptions (Lithuania?) the old pagans, though, have left no lineal heirs who might factor into the equation.

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