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Catholic Church disputes plan to restore Santiago Cathedral

Canon says that funds have already been allocated elsewhere

Just when Galician authorities and lenders had got their act together and announced the first comprehensive restoration in the history of the Santiago de Compostela cathedral - the annual destination for thousands of pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago medieval route - a third party has come along to throw a monkey wrench into the plans. That party is none other than the Roman Catholic Church itself, keeper of the 800-year-old temple thought to hold the remains of the apostle Saint James.

Last week, Galician culture commissioner Roberto Varela told the media that 2.5 million euros in public funds would go towards the much-needed restoration of the Obradoiro façade and the Pórtico de la Gloria entrance, two of the cathedral's most artistically relevant features. This work would resolve old structural problems dating back to the 18th century, chiefly relating to the dampness that has caused damage to the stone, the sculptures and the paintwork.

The project does not provide for any restoration work on the cathedral at all

Varela, however, had evidently not read the fine print on the agreement by which the cathedral would receive 2.5 million euros in three installments between now and 2014. As it turns out, that money is already slated to fund a self-financing project by which the Church hopes to become independent from regional subsidies by charging visitors for access to certain parts of the site, offering guided tours and building a souvenir shop.

"There is no way that the money can go to the façade because it already been allocated elsewhere," said Canon Daniel Lorenzo, who is the managing director of the Santiago Cathedral Foundation, the organization driving the self-sufficiency project. The foundation calculates that by 2016 its initiative should be bringing in a million euros annually, but its market study indicates losses during the first three years, which were to be compensated by the regional funding.

Incidentally, the Church's autonomy plan does not include paying for the cathedral's restoration at any time. Any such work will remain the responsibility of the Galician government and private sponsors. The 600,000 euros slated for "construction" in the text of the agreement have nothing to do with restoration, Lorenzo noted, but with building new staircases and other access points for future paying visitors, as well as a box office and a ticket control system.

"Nowhere is there any talk about restoration work," said Lorenzo. "Afterwards, we will have to justify all our expenses with receipts and return any extra funds."

This latest development pours cold water on the idea of finally fixing the ailing cathedral. On the same day that Commissioner Varela announced that the Galician government was releasing 2.5 million euros for the project, the Barrié de la Maza Foundation, which is partly funding the restoration and has already invested two million euros into preliminary studies, said that it made no sense to restore the Pórtico de la Gloria without first restoring the Obradoiro façade.

The restoration project began three years ago, but a series of economic, political and technical setbacks had put it on hold. The partnership between Barrié de la Maza and the Galician government has been marked by a notable lack of coordination at several stages, yet these seemed to have been finally overcome. But that, of course, was last week.