Spanish bishops apologise for silence over killings

Author: By Elizabeth Nash in Madrid

The bishop of Vitoria celebrated a memorial service in the cathedral of the
Basque regional capital yesterday to mark the execution 73 years ago by
Francoist troops of 14 priests who had never received a funeral, and whose
deaths were never officially recorded.

“The silence with which officials of our Church surrounded the deaths of
these priests is not justifiable nor acceptable for much longer,”
Bishop Miguel Asurmendi said during the service that was attended by two
other bishops and 200 priests. “Such a long silence was not only a
wrongful omission, but a lack of truth and an act against justice and
charity, for which we ask pardon,” the bishop added.

The apology is unprecedented. Spain?s ecclesiastical hierarchy supported
Francisco Franco from the moment the civil war broke out in 1936. It never
wavered in its support for his 40-year dictatorship, and uttered no word of
remorse during more than three decades of democracy that followed the
generalissimo?s death in 1975.

The priests, killed in 1936 and 1937, had been officially forgotten. The “painful
circumstances” surrounding their deaths were unknown, Bishop Asurmendi
said, but “testimony from many of their parishioners and companions
indicates they were seized while they carried out their duties. For years
their names were relegated to silence.? Two of the priests were known to
have been shot.

The service was attended by the bishops of Bilbao and San Sebastian, 200
priests, family members of the priests who died, and representatives of the
regional Basque government. Andoni Lekuona, nephew of one of the 14, said
from the pulpit that he ?didn?t even know where his uncle?s remains were.?

Historians believe several thousand priests, monks and nuns were killed by
defenders of the Spanish republic against Franco?s troops, in a bloody
three-year conflict that caused up to half a million deaths. Many Spaniards
were passionately anti-clerical, regarding priests as upholders of the rich
and powerful in a brutally unequal society.

Franco ruled with what the historian Paul Preston called ?vengeful cruelty?
for 40 years after his victory in 1939, during which his regime, his
bishops, cardinals and local parish priests, honoured their own dead in
extravagant ceremonies. But they expunged the memory of tens of thousands of
opponents who still lie in the unmarked graves where they were tossed after
pre-dawn executions.

Spain?s recent history abounds with priests who took the side of their
parishioners, protecting many from Franco?s reprisals. But Saturday?s
historic memorial service is the first gesture of recognition for Franco?s
victims from the catholic high command. It is also a gesture of defiance
against to an act of defiance against Spain?s catholic strong man, the
ultra-conservative Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco Varela, Archbishop of
Madrid.

Collaborators: The caudillo and the clerics

Franco?s rule was closely entwined with Spain?s Catholic Church. On his victory
in 1939, in token of his loyalty, he handed his ?sword of victory? to Archbishop
Goma of Toledo, Primate of all Spain, who blessed him, then laid the sword
on the altar of Madrid?s Santa Barbara basilica.

The church hailed the dumpy general as their hero, and Franco called his
endless campaign against opponents a ?crusade?, and his official ideology
?national catholicism?. He saw the church as legitimising his
divine purpose, and cultivated the impression that he and the hierarchy were
totally at one with each other.

Franco presided over elaborate religious ceremonies laden with medieval overtones,
declaring ?the history of our nation is inseparably linked to the
history of the Catholic Church, its glories are our glories, its enemies our
enemies.? Hundreds of thousands of the faithful gave hysterical support,
providing a useful cover for savage repression.

Pope Pius XII hailed Franco as ?our beloved son?, and gave him the
Vatican?s highest award, the Supreme Order of Christ. This
extravaganza of mutual admiration has left an onerous legacy.

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