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Hanukkah celebrated in Spain after 500 years

GIRONA, Spain -- For the first time since Spain decimated its Jewish population with inquisition and expulsion more than 500 years ago, the country's small Jewish community has publicly celebrated Hanukkah.

"This is an emotional and unforgettable day," Mayor Joaquim Nadal told the gathering beside the ruins of Gironella Tower, where the city's Jews sought refuge from mobs in 1391, a century before Spain's rulers drove almost the entire community from the country.The ritual lighting of candles on the eighth and final day of Hanukkah on Sunday in the old Jewish quarter of Girona attracted nearly 1,000 people, including many non-Jews.

"It moves me to be standing at this spot," said Israel's chief Sephardic rabbi, Eliahu Bakshi Doron, who led the ceremony. Sephardic Jews trace their roots back to Spain.

Sunday's celebration was the latest demonstration of Spain's recently established religious tolerance. Other milestones include the 1978 constitution, which re-established democracy and freedom of worship, and laws in 1992 that put Islam, Protestant Christianity and Judaism on an equal footing with the country's predominant Roman Catholicism.

The ceremony was organized by the Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities with the backing of city and regional governments.

Doron said the lighting of the eight candles -- a ninth candle is used to light the others -- in the 15-foot tall Menorah symbolized "peace and love in a world of war and tragedy."

Hanukkah commemorates the Jewish uprising more than 2,000 years ago against the Greek-Syrian kingdom, which had tried to impose its culture and adorn the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem with statues of Greek gods.

Jewish legend says that when a small group of Jewish warriors tried to rekindle the temple's eternal flame, they found only enough oil for one day. But the oil lasted eight days and is believed to have been a miracle.

Jewish leaders said they had wanted to hold public worship services in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the expulsion from Spain of all Jews, but it had taken until this year to organize it in a setting with deep Jewish roots.

Although no Jews are known to live today in Girona, a city of 74,000 in the northeastern Catalonian region, it has one of the best-preserved medieval Jewish quarters in Europe. The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on its restoration.

"This celebration demonstrates that in Spain there is true religious liberty," said Assumcio Hosta, a city official who helped organize the event.

Between 12,000 and 25,000 Jews are estimated to live in Spain, compared with more than 200,000 when the Roman Catholic monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, ordered all Jews to convert to Christianity or leave the country in 1492.

Most Jews left for Portugal, which in turn expelled all its Jews four years later. Most of the Spanish, or Sephardic, Jews ended up in North Africa, although others went to France, Italy and the Ottoman Empire.

Later, the state-sponsored Catholic Inquisition hunted down converted Jews suspected of secretly practicing their traditional religion, burning an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 at the stake.