Previous page Page 0 of 0  
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere

Bookmark and Share
The Jews of Belmonte: from1497

In 1497, under pressure from neighbouring Spain and the Spanish Inquisition, the king of Portugal expels the Jews from his kingdom. But as with the group known in Spain as marranos ('swine'), many are suspected of converting to Catholicism - in order to avoid expulsion - while continuing in secret the rites of Judaism.

The tenacity with which some Jews of the Iberian peninsula do precisely that is demonstrated in the late 20th century in Belmonte, an isolated town in the mountains northeast of Lisbon. In the 1990s a group of some 200 Catholics in Belmonte reveal to an astonished world that they and their ancestors have been for five centuries practising Jews.


Under constant danger from the Inquisition (abolished in Portugal only in 1820) and from subsequent European waves of anti-Semitism, the marranos of Belmonte have always undergone the ceremonies of baptism, marriage and burial in their local Catholic church while duplicating these rites of passage in Jewish form in their own homes.

Hebrew prayers have been handed down orally from generation to generation, with only vague understanding of what the sounds mean. Recently even circumcision of male infants has been practised. In modern times people in Belmonte have been well aware of who are the secret Jews among them. Isolated local communities, at ease with an anomaly, can sometimes be more tolerant than the authorities.


After the death in 1970 of Salazar, Portugal's fascist dictator, followed by two decades of a stable return to democracy, the hidden community of Belmonte finally decides that it is safe to cast off the Catholic pretence and to start worshipping publicly as Jews.

A rabbi is sent from Israel to help them establish a synagogue, to provide them with the physical trappings of Jewish worship, to teach them Hebrew - and to salute an extraordinary example of persistent faith.


Previous page Page 0 of 0  
Up to top of page JEWS OF BELMONTE