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Tamaño letra

Basque clergy wants to heal ETA rift

Many Catholic priests in the region feel forgiveness needs to be sought by both sides: the terrorists and the state, whose agents also committed crimes

José María Ormazábal, the parish priest at the tiny church of Santa Cruz, in Andoain, Gipúzkoa province, does not feel comfortable talking about the assassinations of the journalist José Luis López de Lacalle and the local policeman Joseba Pagazaurtundua, killed by ETA right here in this town. There is still an hour to go before his 7pm Mass, but he keeps looking at his watch and fidgeting, as if he were about to get up and leave. He says he felt joy last week when he heard ETA's announcement of a "definitive" end to violence after 43 years of terrorist attacks that left 829 people dead and thousands more injured - but he adds that it was a muted kind of joy.

"Now we have many problems before us: the victims, the transfer of [ETA] prisoners [closer to home]... I understand that those who have suffered the loss of a dear one feel a terrible pain, but there have been other deaths, too. Not just now, but also under Franco, during the Civil War..."

Gipúzkoa's parish priests are mostly sympathetic to Basque nationalism

The Spanish state should also express contrition over its part in the conflict

The bulk of parish priests in Gipúzkoa - traditionally ETA's stronghold - are sympathetic to Basque nationalism, and they say that the region can only return to normality through apology and forgiveness. But many of these priests, who work in municipalities controlled by Bildu, the radical pro-sovereignty coalition controlled by former members of Batasuna (ETA's outlawed political wing), say that apologies must come from both sides.

In other words, it is not only ETA that should apologize for its murders, extortion and intimidation campaigns. The Spanish state, they claim, should also express contrition over the dirty war waged against ETA in the 1980s through a secret cell called GAL, thought to be responsible for 23 deaths, and for the torture of ETA detainees.

That is why some of these priests did not appreciate the letter that their superior, the bishop of San Sebastián José Ignacio Munilla, had them read out in their parishes during Mass last Sunday. Munilla is viewed as very conservative and anti-nationalist. His appointment was viewed locally as an imposition by the head of the Episcopal Conference in Madrid, Antonio María Rouco.

In his letter, Munilla thanked God for bringing closer the unavoidable and urgent disappearance of ETA (last week's announcement only talked about a definitive end to violence, without mentioning any timelines for disbanding or turning in weapons). The bishop's document also paid a special tribute to "each one of the victims of terrorism" whose pain has not ended just because of the "cessation of violence." Not a word about the state's role in antiterrorist activities.

"This type of language does not go down well around here," explains the priest and social psychology professor Sabino Ayestarán. "There is no mention of victims on the other side or reference to any injustices committed against the Basque people. Munilla does not feel the nationalism, does not feel the pride of being Basque. But that feeling does not take anything away from the pride of being Spanish or being European," adds a man whose face was found plastered on posters against a bull's-eye back in the 1990s, because of his public rejection of violence to achieve political ends.

Luis Aranalde, the parish priest at the Church of Espíritu Santo, in San Sebastián, is more sympathetic with the content of the letter, from which he read the passages he considered more important. "The mention of the victims of terrorism and everyone who worked against violence and for peace was highly appropriate," he says. "Perhaps when he talked about the victims he should have also said that the state committed terrorist crimes, that it tortured, but oh well. The letter didn't need to be 10 pages long, either."

In his letter, Munilla also talked about the need for the Church to get involved in the peace and reconciliation process. But how? Sabino Ayestarán is clearly skeptical, and thinks that it will take years, perhaps even the disappearance of an entire generation. "We have a very serious problem. The victims of terrorism, especially the non-nationalist ones, are going to ask ETA members and supporters for a retraction, for admission that they acted wrongfully. And along with the victims, all of the Spanish right and the Socialist Party as well. But I think that, unfortunately, they are not going to obtain that, because the abertzale [radical nationalists with ETA sympathies] cannot do that. Killing is a terrible thing, and those who made the decision to go ahead with it need to justify it. They need it. Otherwise, their conscience would kill them. It is very hard to kill and then admit that it was all for nothing. They might say they share the pain, even accept compensating their victims financially and admit that it was a cruel thing to do... But admitting that it was all for nothing would be the most humiliating thing of all."

Aranalde thinks it is essential for ETA to apologize. "We have the right to demand of them enough strength of character to do some soul searching, which is much harder than shooting someone in the head," he says. "He who does not ask for forgiveness is not humanized. It is the only thing that can help the violent ones have a change of heart and begin to heal. But that is very hard. To admit the senselessness of more than 30 years is tough. It's like complying with the Gospel one hundred percent."