BOSTON (AP) - The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist who led the civil rights movement, is a candidate to be declared a martyr in the Roman Catholic Church, The Boston Globe reported today.

Catholic bishops in the United States have included King among two dozen Americans to be considered by the Vatican for a list of 20th century martyrs that Pope John Paul II plans to unveil May 7, the newspaper said.

Bishop Tod Brown, leader of the nomination process for the American bishops, called King, who would have celebrated his 71st birthday on Saturday, "a prophet in terms of civil rights."

"His whole rationale had a strong spiritual basis," said Brown, of the Orange County diocese in Southern California. "I am hoping his name will go forward."

The Vatican has received about 9,000 nominations for martyrdom from around the world.

U.S. church officials said the pope this year wants to honor those who have died because of their faiths. The list of American nominees includes four church women who were murdered in El Salvador in 1980.

King was a committed Baptist, but his work crossed religious lines. He met with Pope John XXIII and many leaders of other faiths. He spoke often of the importance of brotherhood.

Experts said naming non-Catholic martyrs carries great symbolic importance as the Catholic Church reaches out to other Christian denominations. King's very name--Martin Luther--is that of the German theologian whose criticism of the church in the 16th century led to the Protestant Reformation.

"For the pope to recognize Protestant martyrs is a very important ecumenical move. It was only a few centuries ago when Catholics and Protestants were burning each other at the stake," said Daniel Boyarin, a University of California at Berkeley professor and author of "Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism."

The list of the other American martyr candidates has not been made public, the Globe said.

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