More than 500 years after Spain expelled thousands of Jews, the country's government has relented and called on their descendants to return. The news follows a decision taken in November, by the Justice Minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon, to provide a Spanish passport and citizenship to the descendants of Spain's original Jewish community - known as Sephardic Jews.

"In the long journey Spain has undertaken to rediscover a part of itself, few occasions are as moving as today," he explained, adding that all those who could prove their Spanish-Jewish origins were eligible for Spanish nationality.

Back in the 15th century, Spain had one of the largest communities of Jews in the world, accommodating some 300,000 Jews before the infamous Spanish Inquisition.

The oldest Jewish Sephardic Haggadah in the world
The oldest Jewish Sephardic Haggadah in the world, an illuminated holy book from the 14th century, is publicly displayed in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo for the first time in a decade December 2, 2002 after being repaired by international experts. The 109-page manuscript, rescued twice from war in recent decades, is regarded to be one of the most valuable Haggadahs in the world. It was brought to Sarajevo by Jews, who after being expelled after the Christian re-conquest of the Iberian peninsula found sanctuary in Sarajevo in the 16th century, when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. REUTERS/Danilo Krstanovic

The Inquisition

The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established in 1478 and was meant to maintain an extremely rigid form of Catholic orthodoxy in Spanish kingdoms. The result was that in 1492 all Jews and Muslims were asked to either convert or leave the land.

Historians suggest this was done to increase political authority, weaken opposition and suppress conversions. It has also been speculated that this was a method to confiscate property - by condemning someone as a heretic the State took possession of all of his/her belongings.

In any case, as Maria Josep Estanyol, a historian at the University of Barcelona comments, it didn't matter. The Ottoman Empire, which absorbed most of the expelled Jews were happy to accept so strong a business community.

The body was not abolished until 1834.

Sephardic Jews' Reaction

Today, the news has been enthusiastically received by descendants across the world. The Spanish Federation of Jewish Communities has revealed 6,000 inquiries in the first month alone.

"My initial reaction was that this was a really thrilling moment - that it was an act of justice," Doreen Carvajal, an American citizen and a reporter with the New York Times in Paris, told the BBC, "It was a romantic notion on my part. I told my husband, 'I think I'm going to try and get the passport because it closes a circle'. It was very poetic."

Carvajal's earlier attempts to get the Spanish government to acknowledge her ancestry ended poorly, with the aforementioned Federation asking her to re-convert; her family had converted to Christianity to escape the Inquisition.

"It felt like another act of being forced. Here are these people, the descendants of the forced ones, the conversos, being told you have to do this, you have to be a certain religion. So what happens if you're a secular Jew?" she asked.

The new procedure should clear up that problem. However, it should be noted these arrangements by the Spanish government have yet to take effect. In addition, the earlier rule whereby people of Sephardic origin were asked to surrender an existing passport will not be a part of the fast-tracked procedure.

Unhappy Muslims

Finally, Muslim scholars are critical of the offer. They point out their ancestors were also expelled from Spain during the Inquisitio, but they haven't got any such offer.