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Vatican's Plan to Beatify Spanish Clergy Divisive

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Vatican's Plan to Beatify Spanish Clergy Divisive

Religion

Vatican's Plan to Beatify Spanish Clergy Divisive

Vatican's Plan to Beatify Spanish Clergy Divisive

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The Vatican is preparing to beatify nearly 500 Spanish clergy killed during the civil war of the 1930s. The Catholic Church calls them martyrs, but opponents say the church is trying to obscure its own role in supporting fascism in Spain.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This fall, the Vatican will beatify hundreds of Spanish clergy killed during the civil war of the 1930s. The church call them martyrs but opponents say the Catholic Church is trying to obscure its own role in supporting fascism in Spain.

Jerome Socolovsky reports.

(Soundbite of music)

JEROME SOCOLOVSKY: The monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a giant stone structure on a mountainside with a commanding view of the Spanish capital. Next to the massive oaken doors stands Augustinian friar Modesto Gonzales(ph).

(Soundbite of door closing)

Friar MODESTO GONZALES: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: He leads me through the endless corridors to the basilica and turns the clock back 71 years.

Friar GONZALES: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: They were here. The Augustinians that were later executed were gathered here in this choir, he says. When the civil war broke out in the summer of 1936, this area was under the control of the leftist government in Madrid. On the sixth of August more than a hundred friars were taken from the monastery and herded onto trucks bound for prison. After summary trials, 63 were executed.

This fall, they will be among the 498 Spaniards who will be beatified in Rome. Friar Modesto says many more may follow. During the three years of civil war, more than 6,000 priests, bishops, monks and nuns were executed.

Friar GONZALES: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Not even in the early centuries of Christianity, the friar says, was there such a massive persecution like the one in Spain. The Spanish Civil War began with a nationalist uprising led by General Francisco Franco. The Catholic hierarchy supported Franco from the outset, calling his rebellion a crusade. After Franco's victory, most of the church in this overwhelmingly Roman Catholic country backed his 36-year dictatorship.

A two-hour drive north of El Escorial, in the city of Burgos, a group of war orphans are meeting in the home of Nati Fernandez(ph). She also turns the clock back 71 years to when she was just four months old.

Ms. NATI FERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: Look, I want to show you a photo, she says. It shows Nati posing alongside her two-year-old brother and four-year-old sister. The children look terrified. Their parents had just been executed by Franco's troops. Nati Fernandez also has a copy of a letter sent by a local priest at the time, in which she justifies the killings because her parents were leftists. She says the driver of the truck who took her parents to their execution was a seminary student.

Critics say that by beatifying its martyrs, the church is sending a message: that people who died for the faith are somehow more noble than people who died for another cause, like the parents of Nati Fernandez.

Ms. FERNANDEZ: (Spanish spoken)

SOCOLOVSKY: They're doing priests and nuns but not the mothers of families and the children who were left without parents, she says. You can't imagine the evil that the clergy did here. The church insists that it's helping to close the wounds of the civil war. It calls the mass beatification a gesture of reconciliation because, the church says, the Catholic victims forgave their killers.

After Franco's death in 1975, Spaniards decided against raking over the past in order to focus on their future. For three decades, even talking about the civil war was taboo, but now their past is coming back to haunt them.

For NPR News, I'm Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid.

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