Spain: Disarming ETA

Spain: Disarming ETA

Independence movements remain a headache for the bishops 

Did ETA, the Basque separatist movement, reflect a legitimate cause, or was it no more than a brutal and shameful group of terrorists? That question is difficult for the Church to answer – and last week, when ETA announced it was disbanding, Spain’s Catholic bishops had to confront it again.

Since 2001, the bishops’ conference has threatened to excommunicate members of the group, perhaps unsurprisingly. ETA has killed more than 850 people in six decades of violence for an independent homeland. The Church traditionally supports the legitimate rights of national groups, but is cautious about independence demands and of course rejects terrorism.

Yet the case of ETA has some complex elements. The Basque region, on the northeastern coast, is widely considered Spain’s most Catholic, with weekly Mass attendance at twice the national average. Catholics, some from Jesuit schools, were prominent among ETA’s founding generation and drew support from local clergy who had helped keep Basque culture alive when General Franco suppressed the Basque language and cracked down on local leaders.

ETA’s plea for forgiveness sounded like an attempt to evoke its Catholic roots. One veteran of the movement, who goes by the codename “Txelis”, said he was “profoundly and sincerely repentant”, and that “To say a definite yes to the faith of Jesus of Nazareth has meant atoning for my acts.”

The Catholic response has been deeply cautious. Bishops from the Basque and Navarra regions gave the statement a careful welcome. But a spokesman for the national bishops’ conference said that forgiveness would require reparations, and urged ETA to respect democracy and “the legal order”.

With tension still running high in the breakaway Catalonia region, the Church is having to tread carefully. ETA has broken previous agreements and is still demanding the release of mor than 300 imprisoned members.

Not surprisingly, its latest statement has been treated sceptically by those directly affected. The head of Spain’s Victims of Terrorism Association, Maria del Mar Blanco, dismissed ETA’s apology as an attempt “to whitewash its criminal past”.

Although no one is beyond redemption, the indiscriminate cruelty characteristic of modern terrorism will always test this Christian principle to the full.