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The Guardian

Rightwing Spanish leaders under fire over anti-Islam comments after attack on churches

By Sam Jones in Madrid,

One man died and four were injured in the attack in the Andalucían city of Algeciras.

Conservative and far-right Spanish political leaders have been accused of seeking to smear and stigmatise Muslims and migrants after a suspected Islamist terrorist attack on two churches in the southern city of Algeciras in which one man was killed and four other people were injured.

On Wednesday evening, a man with a machete entered the Andalucían city’s San Isidro church and seriously wounded a priest there before going to the nearby Nuestra Señora de La Palma church and killing its sacristan, Diego Valencia. Three other people were injured in the violence.

A preliminary report from the judge investigating the incident suggests that the killing was committed “to terrorist ends” and was linked to “Salafist jihadism”. A 25-year-old Moroccan man had been arrested over the attacks and remains in custody.

Spain’s interior minister, Fernando Grande-Marlaska, said the suspect had “never been on the radar of any national service in relation to radicalisation”, and his only previous convictions were for “irregular migration and an irregular stay in Spain”.

Although the atrocity met with swift condemnation and revulsion from Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups, the reactions of the leaders of the conservative People’s party (PP) and the far-right Vox party have been denounced by members of the country’s Socialist-led coalition government and by migrant and anti-racism NGOs.

The controversy comes as Spain prepares for a year of municipal, regional and general elections.

Speaking on Thursday, the PP’s leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, said Christians had long since ceased killing in the name of their faith. “There are people who kill in the name of God, or in the name of a religion,” he said. “However, it’s been many centuries since we’ve seen a Catholic or a Christian killing in the name of their religion or their beliefs. But there are other peoples who have citizens who do that.”

Some suggested his comments showed a weak grasp of recent history, especially in Europe. Pilar Alegría, Spain’s education minister and a spokesperson for the Spanish Socialist Workers’ party, tweeted: “Sometimes it’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear responsible than to talk like this.”

Feijóo later attempted to clarify his remarks, insisting that no religion should be stigmatised. “It’s obvious that what’s happened had nothing to do with religions; you can’t criminalise any religion,” he said. “Fanaticism is one thing and religion’s something else. That’s what I think. But, having said that, I think we can all agree that there isn’t generally a problem with Catholic terrorism in the world. However, there is a problem with Islamic fundamentalism in some parts of the world and also in some Islamic countries.”

He said Islamic fundamentalism was an international problem that required a joint response. “If anyone wants to twist that then they can go for it,” he added. “But I’ve asked for respect over what’s happened and I’ve asked for prudence and for people not to use one case of fanaticism to stigmatise, or criminalise, any religion.”

Vox’s leader, Santiago Abascal, offered his condolences to Valencia’s family and sought to lay the blame with “illegal immigrants” and with the government for “opening up the borders and spraying around subsidies”.

He added: “Some open the doors to them, others pay for them and it’s the people who suffer. We can’t tolerate the spread of Islamism on our soil.”

Ione Belarra, the leader of the far-left, anti-austerity Podemos party who serves as Spain’s social rights minister, described Abascal’s words as “wretched” and a perfect example of how the far right engaged in politics by spreading hate against migrants.

“I think it’s awful to spread hatred towards a group that are already very stigmatised because of who they are – especially at a moment as difficult as this,” she said.

In a joint statement on Friday, six NGOs – including the Spanish Committee for Refugee Aid and the SOS Racism Federation – said they were gravely concerned to hear political leaders make speeches “filled with dangerous, xenophobic, racist and hateful messages about origins and beliefs”.

The NGOs called on political leaders to emulate the calm response shown by the people of Algeciras, adding: “In a pre-electoral period like this, it’s especially necessary to stay away from strategies designed to win votes by jeopardising social cohesion and to instead opt for inclusive narratives rather than those that stigmatise, criminalise and harm the dignity of people who are migrants, refugees and seeking asylum.”

Juan José Marina, the parish priest of Nuestra Señora de La Palma, where Valencia was sacristan, said the church had always got on well with the local Muslim community. Marina said about 75% of the people who came to use the services of the Catholic Cáritas charity in the area were Muslims, adding: “We’ve always had a good relationship. There have never, ever been problems.”

Francisco César García Magán, the general secretary of the Spanish Episcopal conference, said people should not be so quick to judge in the aftermath of the tragedy in Algeciras. “We cannot fall into the easy discourse of demonising an entire collective, because to do so would be to take the name of God in vain and that would not be right, just as killing in the name of God is not right,” he said.

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