Ochagavía and Sangüesa: The struggle of three Navarrese towns to recover assets registered by the Church “We must reclaim what is ours” | Society

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The hermitage of Muslila in Ochagavía (Navarra), one of the unregistered assets.
The hermitage of Muslila in Ochagavía (Navarra), one of the unregistered assets.Angel Villalba (Getty Images)

The Government of Navarra delivered last November to the autonomous Parliament a list with 2,952 simple notes of goods registered by the Church in the foral community from 1900 to 2021, also including purchase and sale operations. There are some striking details: there are only four municipalities of the 272 in the community without unregistered properties; and only one in three of these goods is related to the cult. The rest, for the most part, are farms. There are examples such as the municipality of Sesma, where in a single day, on May 2, 1981, the Navarran diocese registered up to 30 hectares of farmland.

These data have led City Councils of various political persuasions to delve into their records to verify that the assets and farms that have historically been believed to be the property of public entities have not been registered over the years by the diocese. There are municipalities that, in fact, have been fighting for years in court and outside of them to recover ownership of real estate and farms that the Church claimed in its day without the need to prove ownership of them.

This is the case of the City Council of Ochagavía. There, the Church managed to register up to 13 farms or assets. The best known is the Hermitage of Muskilda and the annexed buildings and land, registered in 1999. The process began in 2014, when the City Council claimed ownership of these assets in court. Three years later, they ruled in his favor. However, the diocese appealed the sentence and in November 2021, the Audiencia de Navarra agreed with the Catholic Church. The independent mayor of Ochagavía, Mikel Aoiz, has confirmed that they are going to go to the Supreme Court and, from there, if necessary, to Europe: “We are very clear that Muskilda belongs to the people. We have to claim what is ours because if not, we would be letting them take it away from us. We must move forward”. Aoiz details that the hermitage is managed by the Muskilda Board of Trustees, made up of the City Council, the mayordomo (a volunteer elected each year) and the parish priest, who are in charge of fixing it up with the funds contributed by the neighbors. Aoiz explains that the recent judgment of the High Court uses as an argument that “although there is a board of trustees that administers and manages, it does not mean that it is the owner. But let’s see, if I buy a house, pay for it, make arrangements and such, then it is considered mine. As the current laws are not worth them, they resort to medieval laws to argue it”. In fact, he notes as an anecdote: “Even the current priest is in favor of the City Council.”

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In Ochagavía they will reach the end, and they will also do so in the town of Sangüesa, head of one of the merindades with the most properties registered by the Navarrese diocese. The mayor Lucía Echegoyen, also independent, confirms that she will appeal to the Supreme Court the May 2021 ruling of the Superior Court of Justice of Navarra, which grants the diocese the ownership of four hermitages: La Virgen de Nuestra Señora de la Nora, San Babil, Virgen del Camino and Virgen del Socorro. The four were registered in the name of the diocese in August 2000. Echegoyen acknowledges that there is little chance that the Supreme Court will admit his appeal, but they remain hopeful. They also have the support of the Parliament of Navarra, which included an amendment of 25,000 euros in the 2022 budgets to cover the legal costs that the Sangüesa Town Hall may incur during this process.

The diocese is the owner of these four hermitages, but their status is not the most recommendable. Echegoyen details that “the hermitages of El Socorro and El Camino are the worst off. The other two are in better condition. As they are not owners, they cannot undertake the necessary reforms to keep them in good condition. That was one of the reasons that led to the start of the administrative proceedings, after an agreement reached in the municipal plenary session in February 2012.

These are the cases of Ochagavía and Sangüesa, who have been claiming their property for years, but there are those who have just started down the road. The Estella City Council has just taken the first steps. They have verified that in their municipality there are 17 farms registered by the Church, of which only five are destined for religious worship. The mayor, Koldo Leoz, has stressed that they are awaiting a meeting with the Platform in Defense of Navarro Heritage to check the status of each of the estates. They do not yet know if they will go to court, but Leoz has one thing clear: “At a minimum, we will demand that they keep the assets in good condition.” In addition, they will ask the diocese to pay the Property Tax. They will also investigate what reasons led the Church to register two lots (900 square meters in total) that are part of the city’s public roads in its name.

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The Navarro Heritage Defense Platform is the one that has promoted this process from the beginning. Its spokesman, Andrés Valentín, explained that, for the time being, they have not received requests for information from more Town Halls. In any case, it does not encourage anyone to go to court due to the cost and length of a process that in the vast majority of cases does not end in a reversal of ownership of the unregistered assets in favor of the plaintiff public entity, since the norm in force at that time allowed the Church to acquire the land without the need to prove effective ownership of it.

On the other hand, from the Department of Justice, which has been in charge of preparing the list of simple notes, they advance that throughout 2022 they will sign an agreement with the Public University of Navarra to identify what percentage of land registered by the dioceses are communal. There is a suspicion that it is a significant amount, but they do not yet have concrete data to confirm it. In the event that it is shown that they are communal, from the department they bet on going to mediation rather than to the judicial one to recover public ownership of these lands.

The Navarrese diocese will not return anything

Between 1998 and 2015, by virtue of the Mortgage Law (Royal Decree 1867/1998), the Catholic Church registered up to 956 properties located in Navarra in its name. These are the data that appear in the list – of more than 34,000 assets throughout Spain – that the Congress of Deputies sent to the Spanish Episcopal Conference in February 2021, together with a report in which it recognized the legality of said registrations .

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Now, the Episcopal Conference has revised the list to respond to possible requests from third parties – the Spanish Government did not raise any claim – and has indicated 74 of the 956 assets registered in Navarra, but not because they are going to return them, but because there are errors in the list.

On the one hand, 65% of the assets, a total of 48, have already been sold and, therefore, the Church would not respond to requests from third parties regarding their ownership. This is the case of the 29 pasture lands, olive groves, vineyards and farmland in the municipality of Eslava, which the Church registered in its name and which were sold fifteen years ago; or the assumption of four alamedas in the municipality of Aós, sold in 2009. There are two donations made to the local councils in the area – a hermitage to that of Galdeano in 2014 and a church to that of Urbicain in 2018 – and an expropriation suffered in 2003 for the Construction of the Maple Swamp.

On the other hand, the Church details that it has removed two farms from the registry, one in Roncal and the other in Isaba, because, they explain in the table, there was an error when registering them. Lastly, the Diocese of Navarre acknowledges having 16 unregistered assets during this period, of which it says it does not have sufficient data for identification. They are, for example, five ferns, two meadows and a chestnut grove in Goizueta or two plots of land with buildings in the municipality of Baztán. Anecdotally, the Diocese of Pamplona was listed as the owner of the Santa Cruz Hermitage, in the municipality of Oloriz, but the Episcopal Conference argues that there is no such building.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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