Pope backed canonization process for slain priests

Two Catholic priests and a layman who were assassinated during Argentina's military regime are being considered for sainthood under a process launched in 2011 by Pope Francis, a church leader said Tuesday.

The new Argentine-born pontiff gave his support to the canonization process in May 2011 when he was head of the Argentine conference of bishops, opening an investigation into the lives of the three men.

The men -- Franciscan friars Carlos de Dios Murias and Gabriel Longueville, and layman Wenceslao Pedernera -- were killed in 1976 at the start of the military's "dirty war" against the left.

The priests' bullet riddled bodies, which showed signs of torture, were found on July 18, 1976 near the small town of El Chamical in the province of La Rioja, 1,200 kilometers northwest of Buenos Aires.

Murias, a 30-year-old Argentine, and Longueville, a 45-year-old Frenchman, worked with inhabitants of poor rural settlements, under the leadership of the bishop of La Rioja, Enrique Angelelli.

"They weren't active politically, only in pastoral work. Why did they kill them? I believe it was for preaching justice and the truth at a time when there was abuse of power and dictatorship," Fray Horacio, the head of the Franciscan order in Argentina, told AFP.

A week later, Pedernera, a layman who was active in the cooperativist movement, was kidnapped and killed in the town of Sanogasta, also in La Rioja province.

Angelelli was assassinated on August 4, 1976. The dictatorship tried to disguise the killing as a car accident, but 30 years later an indictment for homicide was brought against former dictator Jorge Videla in the case.

The bishop had been threatened after he denounced human rights violations, in a country where thousands of people were kidnapped, killed, exiled or imprisoned as suspected leftists during the military's 1976-83 rule.

The dark period in Argentine history has come under a spotlight since Cardinal Bergoglio's election as pope a week ago, in part because of criticism that he did not do enough to protect priests and stand up for human rights.

Fray Horacio said the process of canonization for the slain churchmen began after "receiving the backing of the conference of biships, whose president at the time was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio.

"There are two commissions. One that heard from 70 witnesses has finished. The historic commission that analyzes their lives could finish its work in 2013 or 2014. Then it will be sent to the Vatican," he said.

The process of canonization is a lengthy one with numerous steps that must be reached before the Church declares someone a saint.