RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne. Oscar Romero moved one step closer to sainthood over the weekend. The late Archbishop from El Salvador was beloved for his defense of the poor. In 1980, as the country's civil war began, Romero was shot and killed. His beatification this weekend brought forth an outpouring of devotion across El Salvador, but it also exposed political and religious differences that still run deep. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: It was 35 years ago that a right-wing assassin drove his car up this driveway in the small cancer hospital complex where I'm standing right now. He rolled down his window and shot one bullet through the broad doorway and into the heart of Monsenor Oscar Romero who was saying mass at the complex's small chapel.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
KAHN: Yesterday, the church, which three decades ago was the flashpoint of the deep divisions in the country, overflowed with Romero faithful. Many attending wore T-shirts emblazoned with the priest's serene smile. A huge portrait of him surrounded by bright paper flowers was perched next to the altar. Oscar Diaz says the country is ecstatic over the long overdue official recognition of Romero's work.
OSCAR DIAZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "It was a worthwhile wait for his beatification," says Diaz. For decades, Romero's supporters push for sainthood met with stiff resistance from conservative forces in El Salvador and in the Catholic Church. They had labeled Romero's defense of the poor and outspokenness as subversive and political.
It wasn't until Pope Francis declared Romero was killed out of hatred for his faith, not because of his politics, that the path to beatification was cleared. But it seems that neither the Pope's intervention nor the countrywide celebration can close El Salvador's long and deep political divisions.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: Across town, at one of the country's most conservative churches, the pews are full. There are no references to Romero here. Just one small poster of the priest hangs inside. Armed guards wander the manicured lawns around the church's parking lot filled with BMWs and Audis. Parishioner Anna Corrales says she respects the pope's decision but says politicians here continue to manipulate Romero's image and words.
ANNA CORRALES: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I thought his message was that we should all love each other and not about keeping the classes separate." She's referring to the current government run by the FMLN, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. The former Marxist fighters won the presidency for the first time in 2009.
ROBERTO CORRALES: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "We need to ask God for them to get the idea of revolution and war out of their heads," interjects her husband, Roberto Corrales.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Romero, Romero, Romero.
KAHN: At Saturday's beatification celebration held at the capital's iconic Savior of the World traffic circle, more than 200,000 people were estimated in the crowd that spilled down several streets. While conservatives objected to busloads of FMLN supporters being bussed in from around the country, others complained about the VIP list. Sitting in chairs in the roped-off front rows closest to the stage were some of Monsenor Romero's staunchest political enemies, including the son of the man widely accused of masterminding the priest's murder.
DANIEL DELGADO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "They say the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime," says Daniel Delgado, a defense lawyer who watched the ceremony on a big-screen TV set up in the street a few blocks down from the main stage. He says he hopes the right's attendance means they feel bad about their past actions and are ready to work with the government to make El Salvador safer and more prosperous for everyone. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Salvador. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.