Obama visits tomb of slain Salvadoran archbishop

The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 22, 2011; 11:54 PM

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- President Barack Obama stood, eyes closed, in a personal moment of silence before the tomb of slain Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, whose fight for the poor during El Salvador's bloody civil war made him a national hero - and an international figure in human rights.

The visit Tuesday in the final hours of Obama's five-day swing through Latin America was a symbolic gesture that some called U.S. recognition of Romero's cause.

Obama toured the national cathedral with Monsignor Jose Luis Escobar Alas, the current archbishop, and paid respects to a man ordered killed 31 years ago by an official in El Salvador's U.S.-backed army.

Romero, now on a path to potential sainthood in the Vatican, spoke out against repression by the Salvadoran army during the 12-year civil war that killed at least 75,000 people. He was fatally shot in the heart March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel.

In a homily a day earlier, the 63-year-old archbishop implored the army: "In the name of God and the suffering people, I pray, I beg you, I order you, on behalf of God, to stop the repression."

Former guerrilla fighters who now make up the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the rebel group-turned-political party, called the visit historic. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes is the first to be elected from the leftist party, breaking a 20-year hold by the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance in 2009. He has apologized for the Salvadoran government's role in Romero's assassination.

Obama and Funes both lit candles at the side of the tomb, which features a cast sculpture of Romero lying in repose with female figures poised at each corner.

"Romero is an inspiration," Obama said.

During an official dinner afterward, Funes noted Obama's visit to the tomb during his toast to the U.S. president.

"It's a gesture the people of El Salvador will never forget," Funes said. "Thank you for this gesture and your soldarity."

No one was ever convicted of Romero's murder.

The Truth Commission created shortly after the 1992 peace accords that ended the civil war determined that one of the masterminds was Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, one of the founders of the Nationalist Republican Alliance.

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