Pope moves slain Salvadoran archbishop Romero nearer to sainthood

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Francis on Tuesday ruled that Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by a right-wing death squad in 1980 and is an icon of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America, had died as a martyr and will be beatified, the Vatican said.

People carry a picture of late Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in San Salvador in this file photo taken on March 22, 2014. REUTERS/Jessica Orellana

The Vatican said the pope had approved a decree that Romero had been killed “in hatred of the faith”, ratifying recommendations by a commission of cardinals and theological experts.

“This is really, I mean really big news for El Salvador,” El Salvador’s minister for government and communications, Hato Hasbun, told local television. Salvadorans took to Twitter to celebrate the news, with many referring to the archbishop as “Saint Romero of the Americas.”

The step means Romero can be beatified without a miracle being attributed to him. Beatification is the step before sainthood in the Church.

For Romero to be canonised, or declared a saint, after beatification, a miracle will have to be attributed to him.

This usually takes the form of the inexplicable healing of someone who is sick and prays to a holy person who has died to intercede with God for a cure.

Francis, the first Latin American pope, unblocked Romero’s sainthood process shortly after his election in March, 2013.

The process had stalled under popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI because they saw Romero as too close to Liberation Theology, a radical movement that emphasised helping the poor and opposing injustice.

San Salvador’s archbishop was shot dead on March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel. He had often denounced repression and poverty in his homilies.

The murder was one of the most shocking of the long conflict between a series of U.S.-backed governments and leftist rebels in which thousands were killed by right-wing and military death squads. No one was ever brought to justice for Romero’s killing.

The civil war, one of the Cold War’s most brutal conflicts, claimed some 75,000 lives before it ended with a peace agreement in 1992.

The beatification is expected to take place in El Salvador, but the Vatican did not say when. Speaking to reporters last month, Francis excluded the possibility that he would travel to El Salvador to preside at the beatification himself, saying it would be carried out by a Vatican official.

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Jonathan Oatis