Sunday, January 29, 2006

Hidden synagogue a relic of early era of intolerance

The Associated Press

PORTO, Portugal — A chance discovery during renovations of a building in this Atlantic port city has revealed a dark secret from Portugal's past: a 16th-century synagogue.

Built at a time when Portugal's Jews had been forced to convert to Catholicism or risk being burned at the stake, the house of worship was hidden behind a false wall in a four-story house that Father Agostinho Jardim Moreira, a Roman Catholic priest, was converting into a home for his old-age parishioners.

A scholar of Porto's Jewish history, he says that as soon as the workers told him of the wall, "I knew there had to be some kind of Jewish symbol behind it."

His hunch was confirmed when the wall came down to reveal a carved granite repository, about 5 feet tall, arched at the top and facing east toward Jerusalem. It was the ark where the medieval Jews kept their Torah scrolls. Pieces of decorative green tiles in the ark further confirmed the age of the ark when experts dated their glazing to a method used in the 16th century. Only two other arks from the period have been found in Portugal, and last month the Portuguese Institute of Architectural Heritage authenticated this one as the third.

Jardim Moreira, 64, knew his parish had been an officially designated Jewish quarter in the 15th and 16th centuries. He also knew that after they were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1496, many Jews privately kept their faith and worshipped in secret, while behaving like Catholics in public. "I suspected that false wall was hiding something," the priest said. The secret synagogue dates from a convulsive period in the Jewish history of the Iberian peninsula.

In 1492, neighboring Spain had expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism, and some 60,000 poured across the border into Portugal. At a time of Portuguese empire-building, they prospered, but they were kept at arm's length, forced to live in a Jewish quarter subject to a curfew.

Then came the harsher crackdown. Portugal's King Manuel I, hoping to seal a royal alliance with Spain's powerful rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, by marrying their daughter, forced the Jews to convert. Some fled, but those who stayed were subjected to humiliating public baptisms.

Jardim Moreira says he intends to place a protective glass screen over the ark while authorities decide how it can be exhibited.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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