Franco's martyrs put on path to sainthood with controversial beatification of Spanish priests and nuns killed in Civil War

Last updated at 17:54 25 October 2007

Almost 500 priests and nuns who died in the Spanish Civil War will be honoured in a mass beatification ceremony.

The huge ceremony being held on Sunday will revive memories of a conflict which continues to divide Spain but will put those honoured on the path to sainthood.

Thousands of Spanish pilgrims are expected to attend the event as a tribute to Catholic priests and nuns killed by left-wing militias at the outbreak of the 1936-39 war.

Many Catholic clergy and Church leaders sided with Francisco Franco in the conflict, which began when the general led a military coup against the left-wing government of the then Spanish Republic and ended with his installation as a dictator.

Over decades, the Church in Spain has gathered evidence that hundreds of its members died during the conflict for their faith, making them eligible for beatification.

But the beatification process, a recognition accorded by the church of a dead person's accession to Heaven, has reawakened bitter memories of the Church's role in the Civil War.

The conflict is still a regular subject of furious debate in Spain and the Socialist government is promoting a law, opposed by the Church, to officially condemn the rule of Franco, who died in 1975.

The Association for Historic Memory, which searches for mass graves of people killed by Franco's forces, said: "The Catholic Church hierarchy is missing an opportunity to publicly recognise its responsibility for supporting Franco's military coup and helping the dictatorship."

The Church insists it does not wish a religious ceremony to be confused with a political statement.

Maria Encarnacion Gonzalez, a historian who oversees the Church's Office for the Causes of Saints, said: "What will be celebrated is the memory of people who chose remaining true to their faith and the love of Jesus Christ over their own lives."

The hold of the Church is loosening on a country once overwhelmingly Catholic but now permits gay marriage.

Yet anti-clericism, which spilled over into violence in the 1930s when thousands of members of religious orders were killed, still runs deep in part of the population.

Writing about the beatification, Spain's biggest-selling newspaper, left-leaning El Pais, reminded readers of the Church's opposition to the draft law to condemn Franco and recognise his victims, which the Church says

could "reopen old wounds".

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