Although the vast majority of the Spanish population is Catholic, on the Costa del Sol it would appear that a horizontal Tower of Babel has been drawn along the map of the coastline.
In 2007, the Unesco Association for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue calculated the number of residents in Malaga province who practised a faith other than Catholicism to be 200,000. These figures have to be seen as relative, because they are not up to date, but they serve as an indicator of a reality: different religions and cultures coexist all along the coast of Malaga province.
The increase in residential tourism over the last few decades has been the main trigger for this spiritual variety. The Protestant community, with its different churches, accounts for about 100,000 followers in the province and is already very localised on the coast. The new Evangelists, most of whom are German and Argentinian, the Baptists and the Orthodox are the three groups that comprise the other branches of Christianity with European roots on the Costa del Sol.
The increase in Russian residents on the Costa del Sol, a community which has more than 30,000 inhabitants, has boosted the number of Orthodox worshippers in the area. In San Pedro de Alcántara, temporary premises are being used as an Orthodox church while waiting for an official church to be built in accordance with traditional criteria, including a high roof and a Byzantine-style golden dome. The services are held in rented premises so that the needs of the Orthodox population can be met: every Sunday about 120 faithful gather to worship. The most important festivals are Easter and Christmas, and the congregations are much larger on those occasions.
Because the Costa del Sol is a prime tourist destination, the size of the congregations of each community in this particular Tower of Babel vary during the year. In summer, with the arrival of an increasing number of Russian visitors, the Orthodox church in San Pedro Alcántara has a considerably larger congregation. This is also the case with the other faiths, although some of these are longer-established, such as the Protestant, Muslim and also the Jewish, which has the fourth highest number of believers in Malaga province. The synagogues in Marbella, Torremolinos and Malaga city hold services for the growing Jewish community in the province.
The majority of religions on the Costa del Sol are organised through communities and associations who have built their own churches so they can hold services and celebrate festivals. Some of these buildings have become tourist attractions, such as the Stupa - the ‘Estupa de la Iluminación’ - in Benalmádena, which opened in 2003 and was built with the help of the local council. This religious building is managed by the Karma Kagyu Cultural Association and its spiritual leader, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa Tinley Thaye Dorje.
Situated in the higher part of the village, the Estupa de la Iluminación is visited by hundreds of people every day, especially during the summer months. It has a garden and a small terrace which is sheltered from the sun. The site is like a lookout point with a view across the coast to the horizon: an almost mystical silence reigns here, and invites visitors to go inside the stupa, which is open to the public.
It is not the only stupa in Malaga. Buddhism is a deep-rooted religion in the province, as can be seen from the Estupa de Kalachakra, which was built in Vélez-Málaga in 1994 under the direction of the great lama Lopon Tsechu Rinpoche. It was the first of its type to be built in the West as a symbol of peace and universal union. In 2004, the ‘Gompa’, or temple for meditation, was built. The building is a tribute to the present Karmapa Thaye Dorje, who is considered to be the reincarnation of Karmapa XVI, who died in 1981. The buildings form part of Karma Guen, one of the most important Buddhism centres in Spain and Eurpe. Its name means “place where the protectors of Karmapa reside” and it opened in 1987 as a place which offered the opportunity to meditate and to go on retreat.
Vélez-Málaga council considers this Buddhist centre to be a way of attracting tourism to the municipality and making it a place of meeting and pilgrimage for people interested in Buddhism. For this reason, the whole area occupied by Karma Ghen has been included in the draft of the future Urban Plan, for strategic reasons.
The third denomination
The biggest mosque in Spain is in the street called Ingeniero de la Torre Acosta, in Malaga city. Its minaret, which is 50 metres high, is an indication of the size of this building, in whose construction the government of Saudi Arabia invested 22 million euros. The result is a place of worship with space for 500 faithful and facilities which include a library, nursery, restaurant, exhibition rooms and conference halls. It is calculated that more than 40,000 people in Malaga province are Muslim.
During the celebration of Ramadan, the ninth month on the Muslim calendar and the time in which the faithful fast from dawn to sunset, this mosque and its counterparts in Marbella and Fuengirola, are even busier.
The mosque in Marbella is one of the town’s best-known monuments: it stands beside the road which leads from Marbella to Puerto Banús and was built by order of Prince Salman to a design by architect Mora Urbano. Its style is unusual, as it includes both Arabic and Andalusian elements.
The mosque in Fuengirola, which is also known as the Suhail Islamic Cultural Centre and stands close to the entrance to the town from the Marbella direction, was built in 1992 to bring together all the Muslims on the Costa del Sol.
Different branches of Christianity have a nominal presence all over the area, such as the Evangelical Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Anglican Church. Locally, these are to be found mainly in the Guadalhorce area and the Costa del Sol.
Meanwhile, in Fuengirola, there is an Episcopal church and a Presbyterian church as well as Danish and Scandinavian churches, while in Mijas there is a Hindu temple as well as an Orthodox church whose congregation is made up mainly of Romanians and Bulgarians. Malaga city has an Episcopal church and also a church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, among others.
The Observatory of Religious Pluralism, which is part of the Spanish Ministry of Justice, published an update to the register of places of worship in June. With regard to the distribution of minority religions, nearly 60 per cent of the total are Protestant Christians, followed by Muslims (22 per cent). The Orthodox, Buddhist and Mormon churches represent barely 2.8 per cent, 2.2 per cent and 1.8 per cent respectively.
The data confirms the plurality of faiths in a country where the Costa del Sol serves as an example of the coexistence of cultures and religions.