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LISBON, Portugal (AP) — Five centuries after burning thousands of Jews at the stake, forcing them to convert to Christianity or expelling them, Portugal is granting citizenship rights to their descendants as part of an attempt to make amends.The Portuguese Cabinet on Thursday approved a law offering dual citizenship to the descendants of those Sephardic Jews — the term commonly used for those who once lived in the Iberian peninsula. The effective date of the law will be made public soon and similar legislation in Spain is awaiting final legislative approval.
Like Spain, Portugal says its sole reason for granting citizenship is to redress a historic wrong. "There is no possibility to amend what was done," Portuguese Justice Minister Paula Teixeira da Cruz said. "I would say it is the attribution of a right."
The measure is the latest step in Portugal's modern efforts to atone for its past harsh treatment of Jews, whose ranks once numbered in the tens of thousands, but have been reduced to only about 1,000 today.
In 1988, then-president Mario Soares met with members of Portugal's Jewish community and formally apologized for the Inquisition. In 2000, the leader of Portugal's Roman Catholics publicly apologized for the suffering imposed on Jews by the Catholic Church, and in 2008 a monument to the dead was erected outside the Sao Domingos church where the massacre of thousands of Jews began at Easter in 1506.
Jose Ribeiro e Castro, a lawmaker who was involved in drafting the legislation, sees the persecution of Sephardic Jews as a "stain" on Portuguese history. He said he was contacted on social media by Sephardic Jews abroad who suggested granting citizenship rights to descendants of their persecuted ancestors.
"We wish it had never happened," Ribeiro e Castro said. "Given that it did happen, and that it can be put right, we thought we ought to do so." Applicants will be vetted by Portuguese Jewish community institutions, as well as by government agencies. They will have to say whether they have a criminal record. Jewish community leaders say they expect the application procedure to take four months.
"We regard it as an act of justice," Michael Rothwell, a delegate of the Committee of the Jewish Community of Oporto, which is one of the vetting organizations, said of the new law. He described it as "another important step toward reconciliation with the past."
Rothwell said the Portuguese legislation appears simpler than Spain's plan, which would require testing of candidates for their knowledge about Spain. The Jewish Community of Oporto has received about 100 requests from all over the world for certificates attesting ties to a Sephardic Jewish Community of Portuguese origin and say they expect to receive many more.
There is no accepted figure for the global Sephardic population. James Harlow, a descendant of Sephardic Jews who lives in San Jose, California, intends to apply for Portuguese citizenship because his Silicon Valley business is looking to expand abroad. Portugal, a member of the 28-nation European Union, offers an entry into a huge market.
"Citizenship makes travel, talent recruitment and operations easier," the 52-year-old said in emailed replies to AP questions. Harlow says his ancestors were advisers to the royal family when Portugal established an empire that would stretch from Brazil to Africa and India. His ancestors refused to convert and left Portugal in 1496.
Spain expelled the Jews in 1492, and historians that some 80,000 of them crossed the border into Portugal. In 1496, King Manuel I, eager to find favor with Spain's powerful Catholic rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, and marry their daughter Isabella of Aragon, gave the Jews 10 months to convert or leave. When they opted to leave, Manuel issued a new decree prohibiting their departure and forcing them to embrace Roman Catholicism as "New Christians."
Many converted, but kept their true beliefs and Jewish religious practices hidden. The "New Christians" adopted new names, inter-married and even ate pork in public to prove their devotion to Catholicism. Some Jews, though, kept their traditions alive, secretly observing the sabbath at home then going to church on Sunday. They circumcised their sons and quietly observed Yom Kippur, calling it in Portuguese the "dia puro," or pure day.
The New Christians were at the mercy of popular prejudice. In the Easter massacre of Jewish converts in 1506 in Lisbon, more than 2,000 Jews are believed to have been murdered. The Portuguese Inquisition, established in 1536, could be more cruel than its Spanish counterpart. It persecuted, tortured and burned at the stake tens of thousands of Jews.
Associated Press writers Helena Alves in Lisbon and Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.