The Portuguese parliament unanimously approved on April 12 a new law that will offer nationality to the descendants of Sephardic Jews who escaped from Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries after being forcibly converted to Christianity and then persecuted by the Roman Catholic Inquisition.
Jews who are members of a Sephardic community outside Portugal and who can demonstrate a link to the country based on such criteria as family name, language spoken at home and genealogical records, will be eligible for citizenship.
Historians believe that Jews first came to Portugal with the Roman conquest of the Iberian Peninsula. By the 15th century, they represented up to ten per cent of the population, with flourishing communities in Lisbon, Oporto and many other smaller cities.
King Manuel I of Portugal issued an expulsion order against the Jews in December of 1496 but soon decided that he did not want to lose such valuable residents and forcibly converted them in early 1497.
This mass-conversion gave rise to a new class of citizens known as New Christians or Marranos, a pejorative term believed to have originally meant swine.
After the mass-conversion, thousands of New Christians escaped to Istanbul, Salonica, North Africa and other welcoming destinations where they could practise Judaism openly and without harassment.