Rare Religious Harmony at Risk in the City of Four Cultures

How long can Melilla, Spain live up to its reputation as a city of peacefully coexisting Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus?

MELILLA, SPAIN — It’s Thursday night and Ramchand Nanwani, the president of the Hindu community in this tiny Spanish territory on the coast of North Africa, is shuttering his electronics store and heading out for some tapas and a few beers.

Waiting for him outside are a couple of friends: one is Muslim, the other Catholic and they’re often joined by pals from the Jewish community.

“There’s nothing unusual here about that here,” said Nanwani, whose grandfather came to Spanish North Africa from India in the 1920s and founded the small but well-respected Hindu community. “You won’t find a place like Melilla in all the world. Everybody is free to come to our temple and I am also free to go to the church, mosque, and synagogue.”

Melilla is a peaceful city with good food and pretty beaches — and it’s a place where Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus coexist. Building on its unique diversity and geography located on the crossroads of Europe and Africa, it bills itself to the world as the City of Four Cultures.

Sound too good to be true?

It might be.

Ramchand Nanwani, president of the Hindu community.
Ramchand Nanwani, president of the Hindu community in Melilla. Courtesy of Gil Shefler.

Last month sirens were heard throughout the city when Spanish special police nabbed six suspected Islamist militants, some of whom are believed to have returned from Mali and Syria, the Spanish Interior Minister Jose Fernandez Diaz was quoted as saying.

It was the second round of arrests of alleged extremists since the start of the year. Now, some worry the peaceful relations that have defined Melilla for decades might be threatened.

“On the surface everything is fine, but underneath things are happening,” said a community leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There are people returning from jihad, from places like Afghanistan and Syria, and they are young and hot-headed. So far things have been good, for how much longer nobody knows. It’s a powder keg.”

Up in the hills overlooking downtown, dissent is visible in the predominately Muslim neighborhood of Cañada de la Hidum or Cañada de la Muerte (“Glen of Death”), as locals call it.

“We have no voice,” reads the graffiti on the wall of a crumbling building in this slum. A flag of Palestine and black scimitar adorn another.

Christians had been the majority in this tiny 12-square-kilometer exclave, surrounded by Morocco on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, since it was captured by Spain in 1497. Due to emigration and a low-birth rate, their proportionate number dwindled in recent decades. Meanwhile, Muslims from neighboring Morocco moved in and had larger families. Now just over half of Melilla’s 80,000 residents are adherents of Islam. Together with Ceuta — a similar Spanish territory on the coast of North Africa about 200 kilometers west of here — the two are the only cities in the Catholic-majority country with Muslim majorities.

Melilla’s multiculturalism is evident in the architecture, food, and customs. Some parts look like Madrid, others like Marrakech. It shuts down for both Christmas and Ramadan. The call for prayer rings out of mosques as loudly as bells toll at churches. And its restaurants serve “Hebrew” roasted peppers, Moroccan couscous, Spanish jamon (pork), and Indian curry.

It’s not perfect: tensions exist and can get out of hand. Two years ago a fight broke out during a Christian procession.

“A rumor spread it was started by Muslims who offended the image of Christ,” said Nanwani, who was present as a guest. “But we set up a committee and found it was false. It started as an argument between two people over an unmuzzled dog.”

Yet with a few exceptions, members of the various religious groups work together in envious harmony.

The vibrant Jewish community is one example. While many coreligionists complain of harassment or live in cities where fatal attacks like the one in Belgium last month are a serious threat, here Jews feel safe wearing religious symbols like yarmulkas or black clothing in public, said Jaime Eizenkot, the president of the Jewish community of Melilla.

“Maybe there was a man who swore at a Jew a while ago, and a decade ago there was graffiti on the wall of our cemetery, but our relationship here with all the communities and, especially with the Muslim community, is good,” said Eizenkot, who spoke at his newly opened kosher butcher store where deafeningly loud hasidic music played in the background.

Jaime Eizenkot, president of the Jewish community of Melilla.
Jaime Eizenkot, president of the Jewish community in Melilla. Courtesy of Gil Shefler.

Jews first settled here in 1863, establishing one of the first openly Jewish communities in Spain since their expulsion in 1492. Many of the families that came spoke Haketia, a Jewish language that mixes Hebrew, Spanish, and Arabic, and were direct descendants of those kicked out of the Iberian peninsula a few centuries before. At one point Jews made up almost half the population in Melilla and the streets in the old Jewish quarter still bear the names of Tel Aviv, Haifa, and Jerusalem.

Jobs, not jihadists, have always been the biggest threat to the Jewish community’s existence.

From a peak of several thousand, about 700 Jews remain.

For decades, many moved to Venezuela, where they spoke the language and there were business opportunities. Nowadays youths usually leave for either the Spanish mainland, North America, or Israel. 

The city’s current unemployment rate of 34 percent has hit across religious divides.

Like Jews, Hindus are leaving in search of opportunities elsewhere, said Nanwani.

“We may be the last generation of Hindus in Melilla,” said the leader of the community that now counts only 100 members, down from several hundred a few decades ago.

Some Muslim leaders say unemployment is the key cause for the radicalization of young adults, who have become interested in Salafist or Wahabi interpretations of Islam imported from the Arabian Peninsula.

“Here in Melilla we are not seeing the clash of civilizations that political scientist Samuel Huntington spoke of,” said Najim Muhamad Ali, a local lawyer who is Muslim. “The problem that we have, at the end of the day, is socio-economic. Young people follow radical imams when they have no better alternatives. Authorities have an obligation to create jobs and fight inequality.”

In its efforts to curb violence and misunderstanding between the dominations in light of the economic crisis, the city has a secret weapon.

Vicar Roberto Rojo, the city's highest Catholic authority.
Vicar Roberto Rojo, the city’s highest Catholic authority. Courtesy of Gil Shefler.

Vicar Roberto Rojo — the city’s highest Catholic authority —  founded the Inter-Confessional Table a few years ago, a group of local Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Hindu representatives that meets a couple of times a month to discuss developments in the city and their communities.

“It’s a great way of sorting things out and communicating,” he said, speaking at his office at the city’s cathedral. “I won’t participate in the prayers of other communities the same way they won’t participate in mine, but we respect each other and often meet to exchange ideas and opinions.”

Members of the Table have been invited to speak at universities around Spain and whenever there is trouble — like in the wake of the arrests last month — they assemble to straighten things out.

For Rojo, who has been vicar for over 25 years, the club is one part of the secret behind Melilla’s generally good religious coexistence. The other is educating youths to respect members of other faiths. Without that, he said, the reputation the City of Four Cultures has worked so hard to cultivate would be at danger of being lost.

“We have something good here,” said Rojo. “We have to maintain it.”

Reporting was supported by The International Center For Journalists and the Henry Luce Foundation.

Lead image via Shutterstock.

Gil Shefler
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