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Papal election stirs Argentina's 'dirty war' past

Pope Francis's self-effacement, admirers say, is why he has hardly ever denied one of the harshest allegations against him: that he was among church leaders who actively supported Argentina's murderous dictatorship.

BUENOS AIRES // Pope Francis is rarely talked about without mention of his humility, his reluctance to talk about himself. The self-effacement, admirers say, is why he has hardly ever denied one of the harshest allegations against him: that he was among church leaders who actively supported Argentina's murderous dictatorship.

It is without dispute that Jose Mario Bergoglio, like most other Argentines, failed to openly confront the 1976-1983 military junta while it was kidnapping and killing thousands of people in a "dirty war" to eliminate leftist opponents.

But the new pope's authorised biographer, Sergio Rubin, argues that this was a failure of the Roman Catholic Church in general.

"In some way many of us Argentines ended up being accomplices," said Rubin. Some human rights activists accuse Bergoglio, 76, of being more concerned about preserving the church's image than providing evidence for Argentina's many human rights trials.

"There's hypocrisy here when it comes to the church's conduct, and with Bergoglio in particular," said Estela de la Cuadra, whose mother cofounded the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo activist group during the dictatorship to search for missing family members. Bergoglio twice invoked his right under Argentine law to refuse to appear in open court in trials involving torture and murder inside the feared Navy Mechanics School and the theft of babies from detainees. When he eventually did testify in 2010, his answers were evasive, human rights attorney Myriam Bregman said.

Rubin, a religious affairs writer for the newspaper Clarin, said Bergoglio actually took major risks to save so-called "subversives" during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, but never spoke about it publicly before his 2010 biography, The Jesuit.

In the book, Bergoglio said he once passed his Argentine identity papers to a wanted man with a similar appearance, enabling him to escape over the border to Brazil, and added that many times he sheltered people inside church properties.

The most damning accusation against Bergoglio is that as the young leader of Argentina's Jesuit order, he withdrew his support for two slum priests. The priests were then kidnapped and tortured at the Navy Mechanics School, which the junta used as a clandestine prison.

But Rubin said Bergoglio had gone to extraordinary lengths to save them.

Then in his 30s, the Jesuit leader persuaded the family priest of feared dictator Jorge Videla to call in sick so that he could say Mass instead. Once inside the junta leader's home, Bergoglio appealed for mercy, Rubin wrote.

"It's a very sensitive subject," Rubin said. Rubin says activists closely allied with the government of President Cristina Fernandez have "have tried to insert Bergoglio into some human rights trials, even when he truly shouldn't be".

"Bergoglio has been very critical of human rights violations during the dictatorship," Rubin said.

Bergoglio also was accused of turning his back on the De la Cuadra family, which lost five relatives to state terror, including Estela's sister Elena, who was five months' pregnant before she was killed in 1977.

"Bergoglio has a very cowardly attitude when it comes to something so terrible as the theft of babies," Estela de la Cuadra said.