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Spanish divided as Vatican beatifies nearly 500 martyrs


The biggest beatification – a process on the path to sainthood – in the history of the Roman Catholic Church has taken place in Rome for 498 people, whom leftwing forces killed during the Spanish Civil War, and who the church now regards as martyrs.

Shortly before Pope Benedict XVI prayed for the newly beatified Spanish martyrs, a brawl broke out in another part of Rome in front of a church attended by members of Opus Dei, a group of Catholics considered to hold strongly conservative views on many matters, and a movement whose early members in 1930s’ Spain are said to have supported fascists during the country’s civil war.

Protesters carrying a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica met worshippers as they left the church. The painting depicts civil war bombing by German aircraft in support of General Franco. It was held aloft outside the basilica of St Eugene, alongside a banner stating, "Those who killed, tortured and exploited cannot be beatified". About 30 worshippers emerging from the church traded insults with the protesters and tore up the reproduction, before police intervened.

In his 28 October prayers the Pope said he hoped the example of the Spanish martyrs would help Catholics work for reconciliation and peaceful coexistence. Benedict referred to the "heroic witnesses of the faith who, moved exclusively by love for Christ, paid with their blood for their fidelity to him and his church".

"This martyrdom in ordinary life is an important witness in today’s secularised society," said Benedict.

Those beatified were killed during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War by supporters of the Spanish republican movement that was opposed to the fascist nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. The republicans were strongly anti clerical, and most Spanish church leaders were believed to have supported Franco during the 1930s.

More than 40 000 pilgrims gathered in Saint Peter’s Square for the ceremony led by Portuguese Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, the prefect of the congregation for the causes of the saints. Spain’s Foreign Minister, Miguel Ángel Moratinos, was present in Rome to represent his government.

Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II, normally presided at beatification ceremonies but the current Pope, although present at this weekend’s event, has apparently decided to preside only when people are canonised. The martyrs were men and women, priests, nuns and laypersons, young and old.

The Spanish civil war broke out in 1936, when General Franco denied the legitimacy of the Republican government supported by anarchists, socialists and communists, and guided a nationalist movement to take the power. The war ended in 1939 with the victory of Franco, who installed a military dictatorship.

A total of one million people on both sides were killed during the civil war. Republicans killed many Catholics, and blamed the Catholic Church for supporting Franco, while the general’s supporters killed many communists and socialists.

Some newspapers in Spain and Italy described the latest beatifications as a political choice, because violence and atrocities took place on both sides during the civil war.

But, Cardinal Martins said that the beatification of the 498 Spanish martyrs was not "against anybody" but to remember their "witness to Christ".

Some newspapers editorialised that the "beatifications" were an indirect attack on senior Spanish bishops and the Spanish government of Prime Minister José Luis Zapatero, whose grandfather was executed by General Franco’s troops. Zapatero’s administration has legalised same sex marriage, supported stem cell research and streamlined divorce proceedings – moves that enjoy considerable support in the traditionally Catholic country.

The Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera wrote on 29 October that the Vatican had found a way "to cool down the hot climate with Spain" by inviting the foreign minister to the beatification ceremony.

Ecumenical News International