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By Julian Miglierini
BBC News, San Salvador
Archbishop Romero: As much a cultural as religious figure today
Sister Luz Isabel Cueva vividly remembers the moment Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was murdered as he celebrated Mass on 24 March 1980.
„When he finished his sermon, he walked to the middle of the altar; at that moment, the shot rang out,” says Sister Luz Isabel, who was among the congregation at a private chapel in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador.
„It sounded like a bomb explosion. Monsignor Romero held on to the cloth on the altar for a moment and pulled it off. Then he fell backwards and lay bleeding at the feet of Christ,” she says, standing a few metres from the exact spot where the Archbishop lay fatally wounded.
1977: Appointed Archbishop of San Salvador
1979: Bloodless coup by reformist army officers; military-civilian junta installed but army-backed violence continues
February 1980: Romero urges US President Jimmy Carter to reconsider offer of aid to junta. Carter refuses
23 Mar 1980: Romero tells soldiers they are killing their own people
24 Mar 1980: Romero murdered in church
Archbishop Romero’s assassination marked a turning point in the country’s history.
His death and the violent clashes during his funeral in San Salvador’s main square, in which dozens died, sparked international condemnation.
His murder was an embarrassment for the US administration, which counted El Salvador’s right-wing regime as one of its allies in the region.
It also confirmed what many, including Archbishop Romero himself, feared: that this small Central American country was set on a path of violence that would, in the ensuing decade, kill some 70,000 Salvadoreans in a bloody civil war.
During his three years as Archbishop, Oscar Romero urged an end to the brewing violence and defended the right of the poor to demand political change, a stance which made him a troublesome adversary for the country’s oligarchy.
His views also antagonised some within the Roman Catholic Church.
„Archbishop Romero was the most loved person and the most hated person in this country,” Ricardo Urioste, his personal aide, explains. „And as Jesus, he was crucified.”
Executions, kidnappings and torture of the rural poor and activists who opposed El Salvador’s right-wing government had become commonplace in the late 1970s.
The slogan „Be a Patriot – Kill a Priest” was written on many walls, indicating that the Catholic priests who had sided with the country’s poor were also a target for the death squads that terrorised the country.
Archbishop Romero’s murder has never been properly investigated by the Salvadorean courts.
But a United Nations-backed truth commission, set up under the peace agreement that ended the civil war in 1992, concluded that the plot to kill Archbishop Romero was led by the former army major, Roberto d’Aubuisson. He died in 1992.
In his Sunday sermons, broadcast by radio around the country, Archbishop Romero listed the abuses and demanded an end to the repression.
„In every house they were listening to his homily. Ordinary people like workers, but also the authorities – the military, the president and members of parliament,” says Carlos Ayala, a journalist who at the time was studying to become a priest.
In a country with almost no free press, Mr Ayala says, the broadcasts were „like a place to find out what was really going on.”
Through those broadcasts and his pastoral visits, Archbishop Romero reached people in the most remote corners of El Salvador; many of whom remember him vividly.
This mural depicts the photo of Irma with Archbishop Romero
Irma Gutierrez is a single mother of three who now lives in the poor outskirts of San Salvador but she grew up in Los Sitios Arriba, a small village in the north, one of El Salvador’s poorest areas.
She was there when, at the age of six and during a visit by Archbishop Romero to the village, she and her cousin were photographed in his arms in an image that became one of the most famous images of his ministry.
Sitting outside the church where the picture was taken, she remembers the episode with pride, and her adoration for Archbishop Romero has not abated.
„For me that was a very special moment, a blessing from God and from Monsignor Romero. He filled our hearts with faith, and strength to believe in God more strongly.”
The chapel where Archbishop Romero was killed remains almost intact today; it still serves terminal cancer patients at the adjacent hospital.
El Salvador has seen economic development and democratic advances in the 30 years since the archbishop’s murder, but violence remains common.
The brutality of the civil war and the death squads lives on, often in the form of the „maras” – the criminal street gangs that have a strong presence in some areas.
The religious composition of El Salvador has also changed; as in some other Latin American countries, there has been a rise in numbers who belong to various Protestant denominations.
According to a study by the Central American University in San Salvador, more than 38% of Salvadoreans now belong to one of these Churches, a doubling of the figure in 11 years.
What Archbishop Romero would make of this change is impossible to know, but his memory today goes beyond religion and into pop culture.
Omnionn belongs to a popular local hip hop group, Pescozada, that has dedicated a song to the murdered archbishop.
He believes that Oscar Romero’s widespread presence in El Salvador, on T-shirts, murals and hip hop songs, means the attempt to silence him failed.
„What his killer did was to keep three generations thinking about him”, the artist says.
It echoes Archishop Romero’s own prediction about his future a few days before his death.
„If I’m killed,” he said, „I will rise again in the Salvadorean people”.