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Basques reject papal nominee

The deeply Catholic Basque country has been riven with discord over the Pope's appointment of a bishop who speaks no Basque. The region's ruling Basque National Party (PNV) - a conservative group steeped in Christian Democratic principles - resisted the appointment and warned that Ricardo Blasquez "will not be welcome" as Bishop of Bilbao.

In a message to his diocese, Monsignor Blasquez promised to start learning Basque, and speak it "even if I stammer with my Basque brethren, like a child". To which one PNV leader shot back: "an old parrot doesn't learn to talk."

The row has stirred passions among Spain's Catholics that have smouldered since the days when Franco won from the Vatican the power to appoint his own bishops. The Bishops' Conference, which has closed ranks against Basque critics, accuses the PNV leader Xabier Arzallus, a former Jesuit priest, of unwarranted political interference, of reviving the worst practices of Francoism, and of threatening the Pope.

Basque Catholics counter that they were among the most outspoken critics of Franco and that many were imprisoned and shot for their independence- minded actions. "In Franco's time, the Basque church was very much against the regime, it was the only one to challenge Franco's crusade," said Pedro Miguel Lamet, a Jesuit priest and commentator on religious affairs.

Basque politicians were tipped off about the impending appointment some weeks ago, Mr Arzallus denounced the move as a slap in the face to his Basque compatriots, and Basque priests drew up what amounted to a job description, making it clear they wanted the bishop of Bilbao to be Basque.

Critical insiders say the appointment of the conservative and ultra-Castillian Mgr Blasquez is intended to counter the pro-Basque Bishop of San Sebastian, Jose Mara Setien, and see it as part of the Pope's strategy of appointing dull but loyal placemen.