Argentine Nobel peace laureate Esquivel defends pope

VATICAN CITY Sat Mar 23, 2013 12:11pm EDT

1 of 3. Adolfo Perez Esquivel speaks with media after a private meeting at the Vatican with Pope Francis, in Rome, March 21, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Remo Casilli

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VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel defended Pope Francis on Thursday against accusations he failed to speak out against repression during the 1976-83 military dictatorship in their native Argentina, saying he preferred "silent diplomacy".

Links between some high-ranking Roman Catholic clergymen and the U.S-backed military regime that kidnapped and killed up to 30,000 leftists between 1976 and 1983 tarnished the Church's reputation in Argentina and the wounds have yet to heal.

Critics of Pope Francis say that in his then role, he failed to protect priests who challenged the junta and has said too little about the complicity of the Church during military rule.

"The pope had nothing to do with the dictatorship. He was not an accomplice of the dictatorship," Esquivel told reporters after a 30-minute meeting with Francis in the Vatican.

"He preferred a silent diplomacy, to ask about the missing, about the oppressed. There is no proof that he was an accomplice because he was never an accomplice. Of this I am sure," he said.

The pope, formerly Jorge Bergoglio, was not a bishop during the dictatorship but was a priest. He headed the Jesuit order in Argentina between 1973-1979 and was appointed a bishop in 1992.

According to Horacio Verbitsky, a journalist and author close to President Cristina Fernandez, with whom Bergoglio has a prickly relationship, he withdrew his order's protection of two Jesuit priests after they refused to quit visiting the slums, paving the way for their capture.

The Vatican has denied the charges and on Thursday Esquivel, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for defending human rights in Argentina during the dictatorship, said he believed there were "many errors" in Verbitsky's book about the period, called "The Silence".

Esquivel, meeting reporters in an apartment near the Vatican, said he found the new pope "sure of himself and determined to carry out his mission," particularly his desire to help the poor.

WORRIED ABOUT THE POOR

"What worries him most is the situation of the poor," the Nobel laureate said.

Francis, the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, took his name from the 13th Century St. Francis of Assisi, a symbol of poverty, simplicity, charity and love of nature.

"The first few signs that Francis has given are very positive and I hope he will continue on the same path," Esquivel said.

Since his election last week, Francis has set the tone for a humbler papacy and has called for the Church to defend the weak and protect the environment.

In that vein, the Vatican said on Thursday Francis will hold a ceremony next week in the chapel of a youth prison instead of the Vatican or a Rome basilica where it has been held before.

He will conduct the Holy Thursday afternoon service at the Casal del Marmo jail for minors on Rome's outskirts.

During the service, the pope washes and kisses the feet of 12 people to commemorate Jesus' gesture of humility towards his apostles on the night before he was crucified.

All previous popes in living memory held the service either in St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican or in the Basilica of St. John in Lateran, which is the pope's cathedral church in his capacity as Bishop of Rome.

When he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, he often celebrated the Holy Thursday service in a jail, a hospital, a home for the elderly or with poor people.

(Additional reporting by Alejandro Lifschtz and Helen Popper in Buenos Aires; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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