RELIGION

AP WAS THERE: Salvadoran archbishop assassinated as reported by The Associated Press in 1980

EDITOR'S NOTE: The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero while he was saying Mass in San Salvador on March 24, 1980, came at the beginning of the country's 12-year civil war between a right-wing government and leftist rebels — a conflict that claimed nearly 75,000 lives.

No one was ever put on trial for Romero's death. In 1993, a U.N.-sponsored commission determined that the assassination was ordered by former army major Roberto D'Abuisson, who had died the year before.

Now that Pope Francis has declared Romero a martyr who was killed out of hatred for his Catholic faith, moving him one step closer to sainthood, the AP is making its original report on the assassination available.

___

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Gunmen entered a hospital chapel in which Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of San Salvador was saying Mass on Monday and assassinated him as he was celebrating Communion, according to a nun who said she and 20 other persons witnessed the killing.

The nun, who asked not to be identified, said in a tearful telephone interview with The Associated Press that Romero, an outspoken advocate of social reform in this violence-plagued Central American nation, was shot in the chest. She said he was celebrating evening Mass at the chapel in the Divine Providence Hospital, a medical center the Roman Catholic archbishop founded for terminal cancer patients.

Romero, facing the congregation, "had just raised the chalice (consecrating the wine) when we heard what sounded like an explosion," the nun said. The Mass is the central act of worship in the Catholic Church and Christ is believed to be present during the sacrament of Communion, or the Holy Eucharist, which is consecrated during Mass.

The nun said she was a few feet away from the altar when the archbishop was shot. She said she heard a loud noise "like a bomb" and Romero fell on his back. She said she did not see the assassin and did not know where the shot had come from.

A radio station reported four unidentified gunmen entered the chapel and shot him.

The nun said she accompanied the archbishop to the Policlinica Salvadorena in the center of the city, and his heart was still beating on the way. "On the way to the hospital he said, 'May God have mercy on the assassins,'" the nun said.

She said about 20 people, mostly nuns, witnessed the shooting.

In his Sunday Masses, Archbishop Romero, 62, continually criticized extreme left- and right-wing violence that has killed an estimated 600 persons this year and has spoken out against military repression against Salvadoran peasants and workers. Last Sunday, the archbishop urged military men "not to obey orders that are opposed to the law of God" and called for an end to all violence.

He also criticized leftist groups that had kidnapped and tortured a police corporal.

His sermon drew criticism from Col. Marco Aurelio Gonzalez, a spokesman for the armed forces, who said earlier Monday the archbishop was "committing a crime" in telling soldiers not to obey orders.

"Monsignor Romero is committing a crime by inciting the soldiers to rebel," Gonzalez said.

No government or military officials were immediately available to comment on the archbishop's murder. No group immediately claimed responsibility.

As soon as radio announcements of the assassination were broadcast, thousands of Salvadorans ran through the streets of the capital to their homes, in fear of new violence.

Shortly after the shooting became public knowledge, an estimated one thousand persons crowded around the hospital where the body was kept until the archbishop could be declared legally dead.

"The place is filled with nuns and peasants," a hospital spokesman said in a telephone interview.

In the past 2 1/2 years, some half dozen priests have been assassinated in El Salvador by right-wing terrorists. Officials of the former government of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, ousted in October, claimed the priests were involved in "subversive" activities and some were aiding leftist guerrillas. Church officials denied the charges.

Archbishop Romero, no relation to the former Salvador leader, was offered security in the past because of the possibility of attempts on his life. He refused protection, saying, "The shepherd does not want security for himself, but for his flock."

Romero had repeatedly received death threats by both extreme leftist and rightists who thought he was a sell out to the other side.

In an interview with reporters two weeks ago, the archbishop was asked if his life had been affected by the threats for his criticism of military repression. "Well, there have been many threats against my life," he replied.

"These are nothing new for me and there is nothing really I can do about it. When the church produces conflicts there will be threats. There is nothing more I can say."

Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios in the San Miguel district Aug. 15, 1917. He studied at the Gregorian University in Rome and was ordained April 14, 1942, in Rome.

He became auxiliary bishop of the Santiago de Marie diocese in October 1974 and archbishop of San Salvador in February 1977. He was named secretary general of the Bishops' Conference for Central America and Panama in August 1967.

Clashes between leftist guerrillas and army troops over the weekend left more than 33 persons dead — all reported to be guerrillas, police said Monday.

None of the leftist guerrilla groups or rightist hit squads operating in the country claimed responsibility.

Half a dozen guerrilla and leftist activist groups have been battling the ruling civilian-military junta in an effort to establish a Marxist government in this tiny Central American nation. Rightist groups have been pushing to block the junta's social and economic reforms.

The junta of two army colonels and three civilians took over Oct. 15 after a military coup overthrew the rightist regime of Gen. Romero. Before that, El Salvador was ruled by rightist military officers for 47 years.

The junta has ordered expropriation of 500,000 acres — about one fifth of the country's best arable land — to break up large estates and distribute them among peasants who work them. It also nationalized Salvadoran private banks to make credit easier for poorer consumers.

However, leftists claim the reforms are not enough, and rightists accuse the junta of "driving the country toward communism."