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Associated Press
Cuenca, Spain – First the militia fighters thought of hacking the bishop to death with an ax. In the end, they showed pity and shot him – one of hundreds of executions of Roman Catholic clergy as civil war erupted in Spain.
The bishop and 497 other people will be beatified Sunday by the Catholic Church, the last step before possible sainthood. The ceremony – the largest mass beatification in Vatican history – comes as Spain is taking a closer look at its painful past.
Bishop Cruz Laplana y Laguna was taken prisoner by leftist militiamen two days after the war broke out on July 17, 1936. The mayor of this town in central Spain offered to free him with a ruse: send police into the seminary where he was being held, have the bishop dress as a cop and sneak out.
Laplana y Laguna declined – he would not shed his vestments. Two weeks later, the bishop blessed his killers as they took aim and opened fire. “May God forgive you, as I forgive and bless you,” he said, according to a book published by the Spanish Bishops Conference.
He will be beatified along with 497 other people the Catholic Church has declared victims of religious persecution just before or during the Spanish civil war.
The 1936-39 war pitted an elected, leftist government against right-wing forces that rose up under Gen. Francisco Franco, who went on to win and preside over a nearly 40-year dictatorship that was staunchly supported by the Catholic Church.
Violence against the clergy had been simmering since 1931, when a republic was declared in Spain. Leftist forces targeted the church as an institution they saw as a symbol of wealth, repression and inequality.
The violence was one of Franco’s pretexts for launching his rebellion, and it intensified after the war started, with churches in government-held areas burned and more and more clergy attacked.
The Catholic Church says there is no official death figure, but estimates nearly 7,000 clergy were killed in Spain from 1931 to 1939.
Except for seven lay people, all of those being beatified Sunday were clergy – priests, deacons, seminarians, monks and nuns, ranging in age from 16 to 78.
Some in Spain question the beatification’s timing – three days before Parliament is to pass a Socialist-sponsored law seeking to make symbolic amends to victims of the war and the Franco dictatorship.
The bill mentions people persecuted for their religious beliefs, but for the most part it is an unprecedented formal condemnation of the Franco regime, the executions of civilians by pro-Franco militia and summary postwar trials of people accused of opposing his regime.
Critics say the Vatican, which since the late 1980s has beatified nearly 500 other clergy killed in the war, is now hitting back at the government by choosing to beatify so many more all at once.
Christian Networks, a grouping of lay Catholic organizations, said the church should apologize for supporting Franco. “As the church has not asked forgiveness for what happened, this beatification is inopportune,” it said.
The church insists research has been under way for decades, and the ceremony is being held now because Pope Benedict XVI finished signing the decrees only two months ago.
“The church works on this very slowly and with its own calendar, which is not shaped by any other calendar, much less the political calendars of any government,” said Juan Antonio Martinez Camino, secretary-general of the Spanish Bishops Conference.
The government has clashed with the church by legalizing gay marriage and instituting other social reforms, but has taken care not to pick a fight this time.
Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero says he respects the beatification as much as he respects the civil war atonement bill.
Jose Andres Torres Mora, a Socialist lawmaker who sponsored the war amends bill, will be among those at the beatification ceremony in St. Peter’s Square.
Torres Mora’s great-uncle, Juan Duarte Martin, is being beatified. He was a 24-year-old deacon when the militia tortured and killed him. “I am honoring him both ways,” the lawmaker said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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