SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Archbishop Oscar Romero was labeled in life as a communist agitator and killed on a church altar at the start of El Salvador's civil war.
Even before Pope Francis declared Romero a martyr, his former opposition praised him as a social activist, promising to build a monument to him in the capital's center if they win the mayor's seat.
Edwin Zamora, mayoral candidate for the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, last week promised to erect the Romero monument if he wins the March 1 election. He said the archbishop "belongs to all Salvadorans."
But he was silent on Wednesday, one day after Francis declared Romero a martyr killed out of hatred for his Catholic faith. The move clears the way for Romero to be beatified as early as this year, another step on the path to sainthood.
Zamora's earlier announcement was supported at the time by his party's president, Jorge Velado, who called Romero "a historical leader of the country, a leader for Catholics, because he was our guide and the head of our church."
Gunmen shot Romero while he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980. He had been outspoken about the military's repression as El Salvador's 1980-1992 civil war got under way.
"His naming has forced people to reconsider things and hopefully it will lead them to ask for forgiveness, many have to ask for forgiveness for monsignor Romero," said San Salvador's auxiliary bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez.
He said many who were enemies of Romero were nevertheless Catholics who attended Mass every Sunday and took communion.
"Who is going to believe them, if here the right always attacked him," said Alejandro Centeno, a 60-year-old worker who visited the city cathedral to celebrate. "I remember everything they said about the monsignor, the death squads that threatened him and killed him."
Maria Luisa D'Abuisson de Martinez, who works with the Romero Foundation, characterized the archbishop's former enemies as "opportunists."
Her brother was the late Army Maj. Roberto D'Abuisson, founder of Arena, which governed the country from 1989 to 2009. A United Nations truth commission later determined D'Abuisson was the intellectual author of Romero's murder. His sister's devotion to Romero isolated her from much of her family.
"People who are here now, and who have had political power in this country, called him everything — a troublemaker, said that he was stirring up the people, that he was a communist, that he supported the terrorist guerrillas; they didn't call him monsignor Romero," she said.
Before Romero's murder, death squads were already committing atrocities and the archbishop and many of his priests faced threats from ultra-right wing groups who said, "Be patriotic, kill a priest."
Monsignor Jesus Delgado, who was Romero's personal secretary and who wrote his official biography, said that "everyone criticized Romero in the way that was convenient to them— for the government, for the military, for the rich, he became part of those who opposed the government and for that, a communist."
Delgado pointed out that Romero was not beloved by the left, either, because he actually was not a communist. Romero had worried that the two sides were set on going to war while he tried to hold them back.
"They killed him and the war began," Delgado said.