MADRID, Spain - The 500-year-old wounds of the Spanish conquest have been ripped open afresh with Mexico's president urging Spain and the Vatican to apologize for their "abuses" -- a request Madrid said it "firmly rejects".
Spain's centuries of dominance in the New World, backed by the Catholic Church, leapt from the history books to the headlines when Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador called Monday on Spanish King Felipe VI and Pope Francis to apologize for the conquest and the rights violations committed in its aftermath.
"I have sent a letter to the king of Spain and another to the pope, calling for a full account of the abuses and urging them to apologize to the indigenous peoples (of Mexico) for the violations of what we now call their human rights," Lopez Obrador said.
He made the remarks in a video, filmed at the Mayan ruins of the indigenous city of Comalcalco and posted on Facebook and Twitter.
"There were massacres and oppression. The so-called conquest was waged with the sword and the cross. They built their churches on top of the (indigenous) temples," added the anti-establishment leftist.
"The time has come to reconcile. But let us ask forgiveness first."
Spain's rejection was immediate and blunt.
"The government of Spain deeply regrets that the letter the Mexican president sent to his majesty the king, whose contents we firmly reject, has been made public," a statement said.
"The arrival, 500 years ago, of Spaniards to present Mexican territory cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations," it said.
"Our two brother nations have always known how to read our shared past without anger and with a constructive perspective."
'Has no shame'
The demand for an apology comes as Spain gears up for a snap general election on April 28 in which conservative parties are trying to portray Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez as a weak defender of the nation's interests because of his attempts at dialogue with Catalan separatists.
The leader of center-right party Ciudadanos, Albert Rivera, said Tuesday the Mexican president's letter "is an intolerable offense to the Spanish people".
Esteban Gonzalez Pons, a lawmaker in the European Parliament with the conservative Popular Party, said Lopez Obrador should "stop fighting" dead Spanish conquistadors and instead fight Venezuelan President Nicholas Maduro "who continues to kill".
Mexico has stayed neutral in Venezuela's crisis and unlike Spain it has not recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as interim president.
Arturo Perez-Reverte, one of Spain's most popular contemporary writers, also weighed in, saying if the Mexican president "really believes what he says he is a fool".
"If he doesn't believe it, he as no shame," he added.
But far-left party Podemos said the Mexican president was "right" to demand an apology.
After making his remarks, Lopez Obrador visited the city of Centla, the scene of the first battle between Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and the indigenous peoples of the land now known as Mexico, on March 14, 1519.
With the help of horses, swords, guns and smallpox -- all unknown in the New World at the time -- Cortes led an army of fewer than 1,000 men to defeat the Aztec empire, the start of 300 years of Spanish rule over Mexico.
The abuses continued until independence in 1821, and beyond, Lopez Obrador said.
"Thousands of people were murdered during this period. One culture and civilization imposed itself on another," he said later in a speech.
Mexico has a complicated relationship with its colonial past.
Its history, culture, food and the Mexican people themselves are the product of "mestizaje," the mixing of the Old and New Worlds.
According to a government study, 98 percent of Mexicans have some combination of indigenous, European and African ancestry.
But although that mixture made modern Mexico -- and gave the world chocolate, tacos de carnitas and Day of the Dead -- it is also a past tainted by violence, rape and oppression.
Lopez Obrador, 65, took office in December after a landslide election win that represented a firm break with Mexico's traditional political parties.
A folksy populist, he pulls no punches in going after elites and has sought to cast himself as a champion of indigenous peoples.