Vatican beatifies 498 Spanish martyrs in ceremony for civil war dead

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The Vatican staged its largest mass beatification ceremony ever yesterday, putting 498 victims of religious persecution before and during Spain's civil war on the path to possible sainthood.

Tens of thousands attended the ceremony, which drew criticism from some in Spain who saw it as implicit criticism of the Socialist government as it takes a critical look at the country's civil war past and the fascist dictatorship of General Francisco Franco.

The Roman Catholic Church staunchly supported the Franco regime, and the martyrs honored Sunday were largely victims of Franco's leftist foes.

Spain's 1936-39 civil war pitted the elected, leftist government against right-wing forces that rose up under Franco, who went on to win and presided over a nearly 40-year dictatorship.

Violence against clergy had been simmering since 1931, with leftist forces targeting the institution they saw as a symbol of wealth, repression and inequality. Their attacks against the clergy gave Franco a pretext for launching his rebellion.

The Church estimates that nearly 7,000 clergy were killed in Spain from 1931 to 1939.

Seventy-one bishops from Spain, conservative Spanish politicians and pilgrims massed in St. Peter's Square for the ceremony. Many were waving their country's flag and broke into applause after Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, declared the 498 beatified.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos represented the government and regional officials were also on hand.

Pope Benedict XVI appeared at his studio window after the Mass to greet the pilgrims, saying the beatification of so many ordinary Catholics showed that martyrdom was not reserved to a few but "is a realistic possibility for the entire Christian people."