Thousands have come to the Salvadoran capital to celebrate the beginning of Archbishop Oscar Romero's path to sainthood. Romero was assassinated by far-right militias in 1980.
Thousands gathered in San Salvador on Saturday to attend an open-air mass celebrating the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, whose defense of the poor and oppressed divided both his home country of El Salvador and the Catholic Church.
Officials expected the crowd to swell to up to 280,000, while four presidents, six cardinals and more than one hundred bishops also came to pay their respects to the "Voice of the Voiceless."
In a written statement, Pope Francis praised Romero as one of "the best children of the church" for the way he supported "the poorest and most marginalized" in society.
US President Barack Obama also hailed Romero's beatification, calling him an inspiration and a martyr who "persevered in the fact of opposition from extremes on both sides. He fearlessly confronted the evils he saw, guided by the needs of his beloved pueblo, the poor and oppressed people of El Salvador."
Worshipers held signs and wore T-shirts bearing Romero's likeness and well-known quotations.
Outspoken critic of injustice
During his time as Archbishop of El Salvador in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Romero was outspoken against poverty and social injustice, giving popular radio sermons where he listed disappearances, torture, and murders caused by the unrest in the country. Many in the Vatican hierarchy were initially suspicious of his somewhat cult-like status among those who believe in liberation theology, which mixes Catholicism and Marxism.
He was also a staunch critic of human rights violations committed by the Salvadoran army and the leftist rebels in the run-up to the country's 1980-92 civil war. Romero was assassinated by far-right militias in 1980, while celebrating mass at a cancer hospital chapel.
Beatification is the first step on the road to sainthood. Romero's candidacy was long delayed by political hurdles in the Vatican before being approved by Pope Francis in February. On the anniversary of his death, March 24, the United Nations observes an International Day for the Right to the Truth Concerning Human Rights Violations and for the Dignity of Victims.
es/ng (AP, AFP, dpa)