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Argentina basks in papal glory - and faces dark past

Joy at the first Latin American Pope has been tempered by difficult questions about the Dirty War

The programmes in yellow and gold are already printed but the star guest for this year’s Palm Sunday celebration at the San Jose Basilica in Flores, Buenos Aires, will be sending his regrets. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, has been unexpectedly detained in Rome. It’s inconvenient, of course, but everyone here will muddle through.

Of all the consequences of Archbishop Bergoglio becoming Pope Francis, his inability to attend mass here in the neighbourhood he grew up in is surely the least important. Other things will matter more.

He won’t be here to visit the slums or wash the feet of the poor and the sick on Easter Day as he has for years. He won’t be on the terraces of his beloved San Lorenzo football club on Saturdays. He will be one fewer passenger on public transport.

It doesn’t mean that those who speak ill of Bergoglio will stop. That he inspires with his austerity and humility is contested by no one. Father Gabriel Marronetti, of the Flores Basilica, who must now rework his Palm Sunday service, says Bergoglio paid frequent, under-the-radar trips to his pews to pray, always arriving by slow-crawling bus.

But place him in the period of the 1976-1983 military dictatorship and arguments break out about him. Nasty ones.

The allegations against Bergoglio are stark – that he and other church leaders at the time supported a murderous dictatorship that hunted down those it considered “leftist” subversives and enemies of the state, imprisoning them – some at the infamous Navy Mechanics School here in the capital – interrogating, torturing and finally murdering them.  About 30,000 people were rounded up and “disappeared” during the so-called “Dirty War”.

That the church here did nothing to confront the generals is not debated.  It was only last year, at the instigation of Bergoglio, that it finally delivered a formal apology for what it did – and failed to do – in Argentina’s darkest times.

But the man who is now pope has been accused of more specific crimes, including denying protection for two Jesuit priests who were kidnapped and tortured when they repeatedly entered a slum against the orders of the regime.

That claim, possibly the most dangerous to his reputation, notably appeared in an unauthorised biography by local newspaper journalist Horacio Verbitsky. Called the The Silence, it draws on the recollections of one of the priests who was seized, Orlando Yorio. He has since died while the other fled Argentina for to a monastery in Germany.

Nicolas Tato, a lawyer and professor at a private Catholic university here, dismisses the claims, however, calling Verbitsky a mouthpiece for the government of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

“You have to understand the context of these claims in Argentina today. The government does not like free-thinkers and the Jesuits are open thinkers. They are trying to undermine him by branding him a collaborator.”

Tato, a Catholic who does not go to church on Sundays, says the world should focus on what it knows of the former Archbishop’s record, particularly his Spartan lifestyle and his work with the poor.

Tato knows first-hand.  He works for a charity, San’t Egidio, that delivers food and serves meals to the slums of Los Palitos in the city of La Matanza that are among the most wretched in the country.

Bergoglio was also a regular visitor. “The interests of a Jesuit really lie with the poor,” he said, standing in the Plaza de Mayo square outside the main cathedral.

Supporters of Bergoglio acknowledge he may be guilty by association but not more. “Perhaps he didn’t have the courage of other priests, but he never collaborated with the dictatorship,” Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who won the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for documenting the junta’s atrocities, told a local radio station last night.  “Bergoglio was no accomplice of the dictatorship. He can’t be accused of that.”

The new pope’s authorised biographer, Sergio Rubin, the religious affairs editor of La Clarin newspaper here, says it is wrong to single out Bergoglio.  “In some way many of us Argentininians ended up being accomplices,” he told the Associated Press. In his own biography of the Pope, Rubin in fact says that he went to dangerous lengths to save the kidnapped Jesuits, on one occasion persuading the personal priest of the then feared dictator, Jorge Videla, to call in sick so that he could say Mass for him instead and use the occasion to plead for their release.

None of the controversy was going to taint the joy at the Basilica in Flores, where the kitchens were running at full tilt to produce food for the local poor and Father Marronetti was happy to invite a reporter to his office to talk more about the former Flores boy who will now lead the world’s Catholic flock.

“Unfortunately, in our country, defamation and libel are very common things,” is all he would say about the Dirty War allegations.

Rather, he speaks of those clandestine visits of Bergoglio to his church to pray, the last in September. He would come, Father Marronetti says, because it was in this building that he found his calling.  It was a day in September – the first day of spring in fact – when a 17-year-old Bergoglio entered the Basilica with friends and decided to enter confession. He began training for the priesthood four years later.

“It is important always to come back to where you first felt the presence of God,” Marronetti explains.  But he now has the Vatican in which to feel the touch of God, far from here, but far from the Dirty War allegations also.

No love lost: The pope and the president

The faithful gathered on the steps outside Buenos Aires’ metropolitan Cathedral on Wednesday evening only had positive things to say about Latin America’s first Pope, Francis, from his strong intellect to his calm nature, writes Ed Stocker in Buenos Aires.

But the ex-Archbishop of the city has not been afraid to speak his mind – something that has caused him to clash with both the city mayor, Mauricio Macri, and the President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, in the past.

Although on Wednesday Argentina’s head of state praised his work with the poor, calling his election a “historic day”, there is no love lost between the pair.

The relationship between the Kirchner clan and Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 76, has been frosty at best. The Pope strongly condemned the presidency of the incumbent’s late husband, Nestor Kirchner, while President Kirchner in turn considered Bergoglio to be a member of the opposition. At the time, the then Archbishop criticised the leader’s “exhibitionism and noisy announcements”. His most heated disagreement with the present President was over his opposition to gay marriage.