BUENOS AIRES - Two Catholic priests and a layman murdered during Argentina's military regime are being considered for sainthood under a process launched by the cardinal who is now 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 poor rural settlers 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," Friar Horacio Zabala, a Franciscan vicar, told AFP.
A week later, Pedernera, a 39-year-old layman with three children who was active in the cooperativist movement, was kidnapped and killed in the town of Sanogasta, also in La Rioja province.
"He was shot to death in front of his family," Zabala said.
Bishop Angelelli was killed soon after on August 4, 1976. The dictatorship tried to disguise the slaying as a car accident, but 30 years later an indictment for homicide was brought against former dictator Jorge Videla in the case, which is still open.
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.
Zabala said the process of canonization for the slain churchmen began after "receiving the backing of the conference of bishops, whose president at the time was Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio," now Pope Francis.
"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 completed before the church declares someone a saint.
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.
The Vatican has vehemently denied charges by an Argentine journalist that Bergoglio was complicit in the 1976 kidnapping and torture of two Jesuit priests -- Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics -- who were released five months later.
Bergoglio, then the archbishop of Buenos Aires, testified about the Jesuits' kidnapping in a 2010 trial, according to a clip of his testimony posted by the newspaper Clarin on its website.
"At the end of '75 and '76 I perceived the normal worry of all the priests who were working with this option (on behalf of the poor)," he said, noting the murder of a Buenos Aires priest in 1974 by a right wing death squad and then the killing of the Franciscans in La Rioja.
"There was a certain violence with respect to priests like that," he said.
Bergoglio said he had discussed the situation with the two Jesuit priests, "and not only with those two, but with all Jesuits who were working in this line of action on behalf of the poor."
"It was customary for us to communicate about these things and see how to go forward," he said, adding that the two priests "always took precautionary measures."
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