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In this 1966 photo released by the El Salvador School, Argentine seminarian Jorge Mario Bergoglio smiles for a portrait at the El Salvador school where he taught literature and psychology in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio was elected pope on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, making him the first pope ever from the Americas. Bergoglio, who was born in 1936, chose the name Pope Francis. (AP)
In this 1966 photo released by the El Salvador School, Argentine seminarian Jorge Mario Bergoglio smiles for a portrait at the El Salvador school where he taught literature and psychology in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio was elected pope on Wednesday, March 13, 2013, making him the first pope ever from the Americas. Bergoglio, who was born in 1936, chose the name Pope Francis. (AP)

Pope Francis and the junta: In search of what really happened in Argentina Add to ...

In Rome, he has made his start as the mild-mannered, bus-riding, collegial pontiff who pays his own hotel bills and is known for washing the feet of stigmatized AIDS patients.

In Argentina, however, Pope Francis is known as a staunch ideological conservative with a long history of unusually public engagement with political life.

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Both stories have been circulating since the new pontiff was elected on Wednesday. But to understand how they fit together, history is the best guide.

The leader of the Roman Catholic Church has always been a political figure. But Francis, the first non-European pope in 13 centuries, may be poised to bring a distinctly different, South American flavour of right-wing politics to the Vatican: It would include the familiar rigid defence of tradition, but also a newly expansionist and confrontational side – an insistent voice of overt conservatism.

This could win Catholic supporters away from the competing forces of Pentecostalism in culturally conservative Africa and Asia. But some observers fear it could also cause Rome to be aligned, as it has been in the past, with unsavoury regimes.

To see why, you have to step back 37 years and examine the dark political moment whose repercussions and ambiguities have come to define Pope Francis’s career.

In the spring of 1976, Father Jorge Bergoglio, then 40 and the head of Argentina’s Jesuits, found himself in the midst of a military coup that deposed the centre-left government of Isabel Peron.

What followed was an infamous reign of terror, as the military junta seized, tortured, killed and “disappeared” thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people suspected of being on the left.

Priests either sided with the military regime or became targets of its terror.

On one side was a sizable faction of priests who had joined the movement, then new, known broadly as liberation theology, which sees the gospel as a tool for societal transformation and progress. Some were explicit backers of the Peronist government; others, members of the Movement of Priests in the Third World, were more radical. Many of its members died, disappeared or were exiled, including at least one bishop, several priests and hundreds of lay people.

Though Father Bergoglio was known to care for the poor, he had always opposed these more radical movements. But, like a large number of colleagues, he was silent on the military junta.

“The bulk of the Argentine Catholic hierarchy was in the conservative wing – they were aligned with a conservative religious view and also a conservative political view that strongly backed the regime and the army and the coup,” says Daniel Levine, the author of Politics, Religion and Society in Latin America. “But unlike other bishops who were actively allied with the dictatorship and complicit in the crimes, [Father Bergoglio] was silent. [He] was not directly complicit in that way.”

Other Argentinian priests were far more active in the junta. Christian von Wernich, chaplain of the Buenos Aires police force, would use information gleaned from the confessional to turn people over to the police; he would then oversee their torture sessions. He was later extradited, tried and sentenced to life in prison.

Father Bergoglio, whether by choice or otherwise, soon found himself embroiled in the terror.

Two young Jesuit priests, Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, were kidnapped by government forces on May 23, 1976, imprisoned for five months at a clandestine detention centre, tortured, and later found lying drugged and semi-naked in a field.

Days before their disappearance, according to memoirs and statements made later by the priests, they had been dismissed from the Jesuit order by Father Bergoglio for having ministered to residents of the slums, which were considered hotbeds of anti-regime agitation. Kicking the priests out of the order is seen by many Argentines as a move that, in the polarized climate of the Junta, may have served as a clear signal to the military dictatorship that they were to be targeted.

In a 1995 memoir, Father Jalics, who now lives in Germany, accused Father Bergoglio of betraying them.

“Many people who held far-right political beliefs frowned on our presence in the slums,” the priest wrote. “They thought we were living there in support of the guerrillas, and set out to denounce us as terrorists. We knew which way the wind was blowing, and who was responsible for these slanders. So I went to [Father Bergoglio] and explained that they were playing with our lives. He promised that the military would be told that we were not terrorists. But from subsequent statements by an officer and 30 documents that we were able to access later, we saw without doubt that [Father Bergoglio] had not kept his promise but, on the contrary, had filed a false complaint with the military.”

Cardinal Bergoglio has contested these accusations. In lengthy interviews transcribed in the 2010 book The Jesuit, and in testimony he gave during Argentine hearings into the Dirty War and the disappearances, he has argued that, in fact, he worked to free the kidnapped priests, including holding secret meetings with General Jorge Videla, Argentina’s de facto military dictator of the time, to argue for their release.

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