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.
Before his death in 1992, D'Aubuisson denied ordering Romero's killing, and his party never accepted the Truth Commission's findings. Others involved will never be punished because of an amnesty in 1993.
Romero was born to a humble family in an eastern Salvadoran province and announced his desire to enter the priesthood early on.
During the war, death squads composed of civilian and military funded by the Salvadoran elite killed seminarians, nuns and priests who worked with the rural poor, according to the Truth Commission's final report.
Romero's growth in national popularity and international stature came as he advocated for his people.
He became "the voice of the voiceless" and every Sunday condemned from the pulpit the massacres and killings of innocent civilians in military operations. For conservatives of the country, the archbishop was a subversive.
"Brothers, you are our own people, killing your own brothers," he said in his last sermon at the Cathedral of San Salvador, where he is now buried in the basement, a floor below the altar. "No soldier is obliged to obey an order that goes against the law of God."
The kneeler by Romero's tomb was used by Pope John Paul II, who, on his first trip to Central America in 1983, praised the archbishop as "a zealous pastor whose love of God and service to his brothers led him to give up his own life."
However, the Salvadoran Catholic Church was unsuccessful under John Paul in getting the Vatican to accept the cause of beatification of "Saint Romero of America," as he became known. The process wasn't started until May 2005.
Not everyone was happy with the Obama visit.
Obama "should also go to the grave of Major Roberto d'Aubuisson," Mario Valenti, a former president and member of Arena, was quoted by the newspaper El Mundo as saying last week.
But Obama stayed with his tribute to Romero, nodding gently as he opened his eyes.
Associated Press writer Jim Kuhnhenn reported this story in San Salvador and Any Cabrera from Mexico City.