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Pope's election revives row over Argentine junta

Friday March 15 2013

By AFP

Argentine cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's election as Pope Francis has revived a longstanding controversy over his role during the dark days of his homeland's "Dirty War."

Francis's elevation was widely celebrated in Argentina, but some accuse him and his country's church of having been too close to the brutal right-wing junta in power between 1976 and 1983.

In 2010, Bergoglio was questioned as a witness by judges probing the arrest and torture of two young Jesuits, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, who were taken to the notorious Naval School of Mechanics in March 1976.

ESMA was known as a torture center during the so-called Dirty War, in which government agents targeted suspected left-wing activists, tens of thousands of whom were "disappeared."

Yorio and Jalics were freed alive after five months.

Bergoglio was alleged to have betrayed the young missionaries to the regime because they had become opposition sympathizers and he wanted to preserve the Jesuits' political neutrality.

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He was also questioned in two more investigations into alleged regime crimes, but no charges were brought and he denied any wrongdoing.

Horacio Verbitsky, a leftist author and militant who has written extensively on the Dirty War, claims that he has found "five new witnesses who confirm Bergoglio's role in the military government's crackdown."

Verbitsky maintains that the church actively collaborated with the regime and was even complicit in the disappearance of dissident priests.

For his part, Bergoglio has always denied any implication in the case of the two tortured missionaries, and even insists he intervened with the then head of the junta, Jorge Videla, to beg for their freedom.

"He even allowed them to leave for Italy," said Jose Maria Poirier, director of the Argentine Catholic journal Criterio.

"Some clergymen stayed silent, others were complicit. There were bishops who sympathized with the dictatorship, but that's not the case with Bergoglio, he's a man beyond reproach."

And 81-year-old Argentine architect Alfredo Perez Esquivel, himself a torture victim and winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his human rights advocacy, came to Bergoglio's defence in an interview with BBC radio.

"There were bishops who were accomplices of the dictatorship, but Bergoglio was not," he said. "There is no link between him and the dictatorship."

A group accused of crimes against humanity under the dictatorship appeared in court wearing Vatican rosettes in honor of Bergoglio's new papal duties.

The defendants sat in the dock wearing the Vatican insignia on the lapel of their jackets during a hearing in the northwestern city of Cordoba.

The trial aims to to determine the responsibility of a group of more than 40 soldiers in atrocities committed in the clandestine detention center La Perla.

In 2007, former police chaplain Cristian von Vernich became the first Argentine priest to be jailed for life. He was found guilty of complicity in seven murders, 31 cases of torture and 42 kidnappings.

After the fall of the regime, the Argentine bishops' council asked forgiveness for not having spoken out more in support of human rights.

While bells rang out around Argentina and the Catholic world on Wednesday to celebrate Bergoglio's promotion to become Pope Francis, some skeptical Argentines took to the Internet to voice dissent on social networks.

"The new pope was a friend to human rights abusers," one wrote.

Another asked: "The pope opposes gay marriage, euthanasia and abortion and took part in the dictatorship, what are people celebrating?"

And, shortly after Francis appeared on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica in Rome to be hailed as leader of more than a billion Catholic believers, an accusatory message was scrawled on a wall near the cathedral of Buenos Aires.

"The pope is Videla's friend," it alleged.

Three quarters of Argentina's 40-million-strong population are Catholic, but the influence of the church diminished under President Nestor Kirchner and his wife Cristina, who succeeded him in 2007.

Cristina Kirchner's government has legalized same-sex marriage in the teeth of strong opposition from the bishops, but pressure from the church has stymied moves to legalize abortion.

And Poirier argued that Francis's elevation might "reverse the decline and strengthen the church" in Argentina by giving it a more attractive local face.