Franco tomb inaccessible on 35th anniversary of his death

19th November 2010, Comments 0 comments

A memorial mass will be held at the basilica which houses Francisco Franco's tomb on Saturday on the 35th anniversary of his death but supporters of the Spanish dictator will not be able to attend.

The state-run Patrimonio Nacional, the keeper of some of Spain's grandest historic houses, has since April blocked access to the sprawling Valley of the Fallen memorial site near Madrid where the basilica is located, citing the risk to public safety from repair works being carried out on buildings there.

But the abbot of the Benedictine community which oversees the basilica said the mass -- which will also mark the anniversary of the death in 1936 of Franco's ideological mentor, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, whose tomb is also at the basilica -- will go ahead even if only members of the order can attend.

"We are going to pray for the founder of this place, and for Primo de Rivera, who died on this date. The faithful will not be able to attend this mass, apparently due to a question of security," Anselmo Alvarez, 78, said.

Commissioned by and with design input from Franco, the Valley of the Fallen is designated as a monument to the victims from both sides of Spain's 1936-39 civil war, which led to Franco's rise to power.

The bodies of between 40,000 and 60,000 people who died in the war are interred there along with Franco and Primo de Rivera.

But for many Spaniards, the memorial site, which was carved into the side of a mountain in part through the forced labour of political prisoners, with its 150-meter tall (500-foot) granite cross is their country's most divisive and potent reminder of the Franco era.

It drew gatherings of far rightists nostalgic for Franco's rule in the years after his death until a law passed in 2007 by the socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, whose own grandfather was killed by rightist forces during the war, specifically outlawed political rallies there.

The Franco Foundation, which is run by the late dictator's daughter Carmen and which used to stage rallies at the site, says the government is now using the excuse of the danger from repair works to prevent masses for Franco to be held at its basilica, which was consecrated by Pope John XXIII in 1960.

"The reasons that the government gives are pretexts that are unacceptable. They have other objectives," said Emilio de Miguel, a director at the Franco Foundation in Madrid which wants the site to be reopened to the public.

"The government's attitude is mistaken. It is a religious monument and the fact that Franco and Primo de Rivera are interred there does not change that. This is the only Western government that is closing houses of worship."

Conservative lobby group Hazte Oir, or Make Yourself Heard, has so far collected over 40,000 signatures on a petition calling on the government to reopen the memorial site.

It argues the "arbitrary" closure of the basilica violates Spain's constitution, which guarantees freedom of worship and assembly.

On Monday another group, the Association for the Defence of the Valley, went to court to demand that the Valley of the Fallen be temporarily reopened while another court challenge it launched against its closure is considered.

This month the Benedictine community which oversees the basilica began celebrating mass on Sundays outdoors at the main gate to the Valley of the Fallen.

Despite the cold, rain and fog, some 3,000 people attended the outdoor mass this past Sunday, up from 200 in the previous week, causing lengthy traffic jams, daily newspaper El Mundo reported.

Concepcion Rodrigo, a spokeswoman for the Friends of the Valley group which is also pushing for the grounds to be reopened, said she saw no reason why people who hold Franco and Primo de Rivera and their family members "in esteem" should not be allowed to attend mass where they are interred.

"Whatever they were in life, now they are deceased. The family wants to pray to God for their souls, everything else is history which should be left to historians to judge and study, that is what they are for," she said.

© 2010 AFP

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