Pope Benedict XVI today waded into a fierce political battle in Spain over its bloody past, beatifying 498 priests and nuns killed in the civil war in the largest ever ceremony of its kind.
Addressing the 30,000 mainly Spanish pilgrims that flocked to Rome, the Pope paid tribute to the “martyrs” of the 1936-39 war, who had “paid in blood for their faith in Christ and his Church” and put them on the path to sainthood.
“Their words and gestures of forgiveness towards their persecutors should enable us to work towards reconciliation and peaceful coexistence,” the Pontiff said.
But far from healing the rifts left by the conflict, the lavish ceremony in St. Peter’s Square stirred anger among those who fought against General Franco and suffered under his subsequent 36-year dictatorship.
The Roman Catholic Church largely supported Franco’s side during the war and its aftermath and critics said it was again choosing sides by honouring victims on only one side.
Street fights broke out in Rome following the ceremony when a group of faithful attacked left-wing protesters carrying a banner that read: “Those who have killed, tortured and exploited cannot be beatified”.
Around 30 enraged pilgrims tore the banner to pieces along with a large reproduction of Picasso’s “Guernica”, the most famous depiction of atrocities committed by Franco’s side.
Italian police arrested seven people and impounded a van that protesters had used to film the fighting.
Others critics said the Pope should have recognised the Church’s role in supporting a fascist dictator that killed untold thousands and overthrew a democratically-elected government.
“The Catholic Church has missed an opportunity to recognise its deeds during the civil war and Franco’s dictatorship,” said Spain’s Association for Historical Memory, which is exhuming mass graves of those killed on the Republican side to give them a proper burial. “As long as the Church accepts only its role as victim and not executioner, it will simply be contributing to...the partisan use of the past.”
Spain’s Socialist Government has clashed repeatedly with the Roman Catholic Church over issues ranging from its legalisation of same-sex marriage to the easing of divorce laws and plans to introduce civics lessons into schools.
Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, whose own grandfather was executed by Franco’s forces during the war, has likened his government to the Leftist Second Republic that was overthrown by Franco in the war.
Mr Zapatero has caused howls of protest from conservatives after introducing a law aimed at redressing the injustices suffered by victims of Franco’s regime.
Among other measures, the law orders the removal of any remaining symbols of the dictatorship, which arguably include the shrines in many Spanish churches to the dead on Franco’s side.
By contrast, Republican victims still lie in dozens of unmarked mass graves dotted around the country.
On this occasion, however, both the Government and the Vatican have striven to avoid confrontation.
The Government sent its Foreign Minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, to lead the Spanish delegation at the ceremony. And the Vatican has strenuously denied that the beatification ceremony as anything to do with the Government’s controversial “Historic Memory” Bill, which comes to a vote next week.
“The beatification process began well before Zapatero came to Government,” the Spanish Cardinal, Julián Herranz, said in Rome. “Those wishing to see the ceremony as political or as having an anti-Government intent are distorting reality and telling a lie.”
But critics have pointed out that only priests aligned with Franco’s side during the war were honoured today.
“Priests that were killed in Catalonia or parts of the Basque Country loyal to the Republic are not being beatified,” said Alejandro Quiroga, professor of Spanish history at Newcastle University.
“It is a very selective, political reading of the whole thing.”
Families of several Basque priests, executed by Franco’s men because they supported the Government side or were Basque nationalists, have complained that their cases have been forgotten.
“Are we nothing, or what?” asked Vicenta Sagarna Uriarte, whose brother José was shot in his church by Franco’s men in 1936.
“We feel so helpless seeing the Vatican ceremony. What about our own? No one has asked for our forgiveness,” she told Spain's El País newspaper.
Some 500,000 people, mostly civilians, died during the three-year Spanish Civil War.
Bands of Communist and Anarchist irregulars on the Republican side burned churches and killed thousands of priests and nuns, while Falangist death squads executed tens of thousands of Spaniards suspected of harbouring Leftist sympathies.
The conflict was seen as a dress rehearsal for World War II, with Nazi Germany supporting Franco’s side and the Soviet Union backing the Republic.
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