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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Spanish Civil War Victims Beatified

ReutersPortraits of clergy killed in the Spanish Civil War hanging on a fence Sunday in a mass beatification at the Vatican.
VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican held the biggest mass beatification in history Sunday, putting nearly 500 Catholics killed during the Spanish Civil War on the path to possible sainthood.

But the outdoor ceremony in St. Peter's Square, attended by tens of thousands of Spanish pilgrims, also revived bitter memories of a conflict which still divides Spain.

Many Catholic clergy and church leaders sided with Francisco Franco during the 1936-39 conflict, which began when the general led a military coup against the left-wing government and ended with his victory and installation as a dictator.

Most of the Catholic martyrs honored Sunday were killed by left-wing militias at the outbreak of fighting in 1936.

For decades, the church in Spain has gathered evidence that hundreds died for their faith during the war, making them eligible for beatification.

If devout Catholics report miracles linked to their prayers to those beatified on Sunday, some could be considered for sainthood.

The war is still the source of furious debate in Spain, and the Church has insisted it did not want the beatification ceremony to be confused with a political statement.

Pope Benedict, speaking to the crowds in St. Peter's Square just after the ceremony, said the martyrs honored on Sunday were "motivated exclusively by their love for Christ."

"The beatifications today remind us of the importance of humbly following our Lord even to the point of offering our lives for the faith," the pontiff said.