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Beatifications stir unrest in Spain

Critics accuse the Vatican of playing politics

Students from Compania de Maria school in Talavera de la Reina, Spain, held portraits of clergy members killed during Spain's Civil War at the Vatican yesterday. It was the largest beatification ceremony in church history, putting 498 Catholics slain in the war on the path to sainthood. Students from Compania de Maria school in Talavera de la Reina, Spain, held portraits of clergy members killed during Spain's Civil War at the Vatican yesterday. It was the largest beatification ceremony in church history, putting 498 Catholics slain in the war on the path to sainthood. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

VATICAN CITY - Bitter memories of Spain's Civil War were on center stage here yesterday as the Vatican put 498 slain Spanish priests and nuns from that divisive era on the path to sainthood.

The Mass recognizing the Catholic men and women killed around the time of the 1936-39 Civil War was the largest beatification ceremony in church history. Thousands of pilgrims who traveled from Spain filled St. Peter's Square, waving yellow-and-red national flags and pictures of the newly beatified, whom the church considers to be martyrs.

"For a Catholic Spain, they died," read one huge banner.

However, the beatifications have stirred controversy in Spain, where critics accuse the Vatican of playing politics by promoting recognition of one side of the war's protagonists.

Moreover, the timing of the ceremony, and the fact that it was held at the Vatican with an appearance by Pope Benedict XVI, was seen by many as an ideologically motivated gesture of support for a Catholic Church at loggerheads with the leftist Spanish government.

The church says the priests and nuns, as well as a handful of lay religious people, were killed decades ago by pro-leftist forces because of their Catholicism - "heroic witnesses of the faith," as the pope called them yesterday.

Many in Spain's Catholic Church sided with the Fascists led by General Francisco Franco, who overthrew the elected leftist government, eventually won the war, and ruled as a dictator for nearly four decades, granting wide power and influence to the church. Spain remains deeply polarized today, and the nation is struggling to come to terms with its past. This week, a hard-fought "historical memory" law goes before the Spanish Parliament, which acknowledges in the most comprehensive form to date the atrocities of the Franco regime, while giving a nod to those killed for their religious beliefs. It will finance exhumation of Franco-era mass graves, pay reparations to his victims, and cancel summary court judgments against opponents of the regime.

The Vatican and organizers of yesterday's ceremony insisted it was not political.

"To beatify a martyr, or a group of martyrs, has no political meaning, but only exclusively a religious one," Spanish Cardinal Julián Herranz, a member of the ultraconservative Opus Dei organization, which is especially dominant in Spain, told an Italian newspaper.

Later yesterday, protesters scuffled with Catholic adherents outside a church known for its association with Opus Dei. The protesters displayed a banner that, repeating graffiti that has popped up in Spain, said: "Those who have killed, tortured, and exploited cannot be beatified."

They displayed the banner with a replica of Picasso's famous Spanish War painting "Guernica." The churchgoers tore up the banner that portrays the horrors of war as the two groups brawled, Italian television reported.

Benedict, unlike his predecessor, John Paul II, rarely presides over beatifications, so his choice to appear yesterday was significant. He did not attend yesterday's Mass, but as it concluded he stepped onto his balcony above St. Peter's Square to bless the audience and salute the martyrs and their followers.

Martyrdom, he said, "is a testimony as important as ever in today's secularized societies."

"The beatifications today remind us of the importance of humbly following our Lord even to the point of offering our lives for the faith," Benedict added.

Spain was once one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. The current government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero has trimmed Catholic Church budgets in public schools and pushed a liberal social agenda that includes the legalization of gay marriage and making it easier to obtain abortions and divorces.

Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, a Portuguese prelate who heads the Vatican department that oversees the making of saints, led yesterday's beatification and used it to emphasize Catholic teachings that are being challenged in today's Spain.

The crowd in St. Peter's Square turned ecstatic at the pope's appearance and said it felt vindication for its histories.

"I have waited for this day for years," said Eulalia Caldés, a Spaniard in her 60s whose aunt was Catalina Caldés, a nun killed in Barcelona on July 23, 1936.

"This is a huge support for our church, which has been a little down lately," said Aurora Serrano, 60, who came from Toledo, Spain, in support of Liberio González, a priest killed in August 1936.

Another controversy that touched on the beatifications involves Father Gabino Olaso Zabala, who was also killed in August 1936. Decades earlier, he was stationed as a missionary in the Philippines, where witnesses said Olaso was involved in the torture of a priest who was said to have supported the rebellion against Spanish occupiers of the island nation.

Father Fernando Rojo, the Spanish-born postulator, or handler, of Olaso's case and that of the other Augustinian priests, said that such background was not important to the martyr's cause. Whether or not Olaso was a torturer, the key fact is that he died for his faith, he said.

"We are humans; we can have defects, but at the hour of truth, the question is whether he renounced his faith," Rojo said in an interview ahead of yesterday's ceremony.

Under church rules, a martyr, someone killed expressly for his or her Catholicism, can be beatified without having performed a miracle. To be canonized as a saint, however, the person must be credited with a miracle, usually an unexplainable medical cure.

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