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Last Updated: Sunday, 28 October 2007, 22:55 GMT
Spanish beatifications raise emotions
By Frances Kennedy
BBC News, Rome

Tens of thousands of Spanish pilgrims thronged St Peter's Square to witness the beatification of 498 martyrs, killed for their faith before and during Spain's civil war in the 1930s.

Crowd holds photos of Spanish martyrs at Vatican beatification ceremony - 28/10/2007
Most of those beatified were priests, nuns or seminary students
They waved Spanish flags and held large photos of the martyrs as the names were read out one by one at Sunday's ceremony.

"Four of the martyrs were from the Marist order, they were all young teachers," said Maria, 26, who had travelled by coach from Madrid.

"We are a group of students, alumni and teachers from Marist schools so there is a real connection with their sacrifice."

Most of those beatified Sunday were priests, nuns or seminary students, though there were seven lay people.

While the bulk died in 1936-37 once the civil war had begun, a handful were slain in 1934 as anti-clerical sentiment rose under the elected left-wing government.

"They were executed because they remained true to their faith," said Miguel, a civil servant carrying his infant son in a pouch.

"They had the chance to renege and say: 'Okay, I am not a Catholic' and save their skins. How many of us here today would have that courage?"

Redress law

For Remei, a trim navy-clad woman from Barcelona, the day was important "not because of the past but for the future, to ensure we don't see such horror again".

When the Fascist army marched into my grandmother's home village in Andalucia... it was the Catholic priest who betrayed local people to the invaders
William Garcia, York, England
BBC News website reader

The military uprising against the democratically-elected leftist government in 1936 led to three years of war.

After that came four decades of fascist dictatorship under General Francisco Franco, who was widely supported by the Catholic church.

But memories of the war in which several hundred thousand people were killed continue to torment Spain, especially with a draft bill due before parliament this week.

With the Law for the Recovery of the Historical Memory the leftist government of Jose Luis Zapatero is seeking to provide redress for the victims of Franco's regime.

But the law has been criticised by right-wing parties and the Catholic church, for seeking to compensate victims on one side alone.

"I don't think you need to go through all this and remind people about all the violence that happened," said Maria, as her fresh-faced friends nodded in agreement.

Cuban martyr

Javier Garisodin, a tall, striking figure in a red beret waving the traditional flags of the anti-liberal Carlist movement, is vehemently opposed to the bill.

"We cannot forget that in the 1930s there were very specific political parties, the Socialists, Anarchists and Communists, who began the persecution and it was as a reaction to this that there was a military uprising led by Franco.

"They were already burning churches before the war began. This draft law is an unjust, one-sided attempt to seek political revenge," he added.

Among the 498 martyrs is a Cuban, Jose Lopez Piteira, whose story resonates with exiles from that country.

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins at the Vatican, 27/10/07
The victims are regarded by the Church as martyrs
Training as a priest, he was sentenced to death by Communist militants in November 1936.

Though he could have been let off because of his nationality, he chose to die with his religious colleagues.

"These martyrs in Spain died crying 'long live Christ the King' and it's the same cry the Cubans made when they were executed in Cuba by Fidel Castro," said German Mirett, a Cuban exile living in Miami, his voice cracking with emotion.

Madrid resident Luis Baralt, a silver-haired former ambassador of Cuba to Canada, said that it was very satisfying both morally and emotionally as he was "practically an adopted member of the family of Jose Lopez Piteira".

Both men dismissed suggestions that the Vatican ceremony could be timed as a counterweight to the bill in Spain.

"This cause was started many years ago and has nothing to do with the current political events, though the Zapatero government may be using it for political purposes," said Baralt.

The presence at the beatification of foreign minister Angel Miguel Moratinos, a distant relative of one of the martyrs but also a supporter of the memory law, seems a conciliatory signal from the Madrid government as it prepares to push through a law that symbolically recognises the suffering of thousands of victims of Franco's brutal four-decade regime.

Clergy mark the ceremony in St. Peter's

Civil War legacy divides Spain
18 Jul 06 |  Europe
Timeline: Spain
04 Sep 07 |  Country profiles
Country profile: Spain
04 Sep 07 |  Country profiles


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