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Religion

Dictatorship casts shadow over Bergoglio

Human rights activists are accusing Pope Francis of not having distanced himself enough from the Argentine military dictatorship in the 1970s. But none of the charges have stuck.

Young Jorge Bergoglio

Young Jorge Bergoglio

It came as no huge surprise that Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner reacted coolly in her tardy congratulations to Jorge Mario Bergoglio, former archbishop of Buenos Aires, on his new post as pope. After all, the populist-leaning president and the conservative religious leader were never political allies.

But there are others, however, who flat-out rejected Jorge Bergoglio as the new Pope Francis. "At first we thought it was a joke. For us, this is really no good," said Graciela Lois of Familiares, an organization that represents the relatives of people who were politically detained and disappeared during Argentina's 1970s military dictatorship. Tens of thousands of dissidents disappeared in what became known as Argentina's Dirty War. Lois and other Argentine human rights activists accuse Pope Francis of being just too close to the dictatorship. During that time, Bergoglio was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner greets Jorge Bergoglio at the Basilica of Lujan, December 2008

Fernández and Bergoglio have been at odds over issues, including gay marriage and contraception

Serious accusations

Bergoglio is said to have known about the kidnapping and abuse of the regime's dissidents - specifically, two Jesuit priests who were brought to a notorious detention center known under the acronym ESMA in 1976.

There is "sufficient evidence that Bergoglio took an active role during the most recent military dictatorship," said Carlos Pisoni of the HIJOS association, which continues to search for disappeared victims of the military dictatorship. According to Pisoni, Bergoglio passed on information to the military and "hasn't done what's necessary to clarify certain situations."

When the abducted priests were released five months later, they claimed that Bergoglio had acted as an informant against them. Lois of Familiares placed the accusation back in the context of Bergoglio's religious role. "He didn't take seriously his role as a Jesuit and didn't protect the two enough," the activist said.

In 2005, an Argentine human rights lawyer filed suit against Bergoglio over the matter, accusing him of involvement in the abduction just days before the cardinals convened for the conclave. In that vote, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires lost the papal election to then German cardinal Joseph Ratzlinger, who became Benedict XVI. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

In a second case, the brother of a girl who went missing accused Bergoglio of having turned him away when he sought help.

Bergoglio greeting worshippers in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Liniers, August 2009

Bergoglio is seen by many as a man of the people

Lack of proof, prominent advocate

When both cases went to court, Bergoglio denied the charges when called as a witness - even saying that he personally met with dictator Jorge Rafael Videla to ask for the priests to be released. Bergoglio rebuffed the allegations in his autobiography, as well.

Bergoglio's critics have failed to provide definitive proof of Bergoglio's guilt, and he's never been prosecuted by the state.

More than a few see the accusations as political maneuvering against the conservative theologist. His defenders even say that he hid dissidents, helping them flee the country.

The new pope has a prominent advocate, one who has also been honored abroad. Argentine sculptor Adolfo Pérez Esquivel won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 for his human rights activism. Esquivel guaranteed that Pope Francis never made a pact with the dictatorship.

"He had absolutely no relation," he said. "There were bishops who were accomplices. But Bergoglio was definitely not one of them."

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