“Basque bishops didn’t attend the funerals of ETA’s victims,” said journalist Pedro Ontoso, working in the Spanish city of Bilbao. Ontoso suffered twelve years of personal danger, Molotov cocktails, bomb packages, plus the murder of his director, so you could well call him an eyewitness of the brutality of the armed organization ETA.

For 42 years Ontoso worked for the Basque newspaper El Correo, one of Basque separatist group’s targets. Recently he published a book (Con la Biblia y la Parabellum) about the questionable conduct of the Basque Church with regards to ETA.

For decades the armed organization waged a campaign for independence of the Basque country, but in May last year ETA announced its dissolution. Even so, the wounds have not yet been healed, and this has also to do with the conduct of the Church in Spanish Basque country. The Church decided against publicly and resolutely rejecting ETA’s actions, claims Ontoso.

“They believed the political goals of the armed organization were legitimate. Many regard this as the original sin of the Basque Church,” he said.

Priests involved

There are several examples of the ambiguous feelings the Basque Church had about ETA. One being that the Church only used the abbreviation ETA for the first time in 1984. Until then, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (‘Basque Homeland and Liberty’) was used in all official documentation. And then there were the condemnations of the bishops after several ETA attacks, in which they also mentioned “other forms of violence,” and the right of self-determination.

Also telling was the decision of the Basque bishops not to attend the funerals of ETA’s victims, Ontoso said: They believed that would make things too political. “Many were offended by that decision.”

But there is more. In 1968 a police officer of the Guardia Civil was shot and killed; it was ETA’s first assassination attempt. Later that same day one of the shooters was killed by the police. The other shooter managed to escape and find refuge in a church, with the help of a priest. What happens afterwards is shocking as well. Many priests offered Masses for the killed terrorist, whom they regarded as a martyr.

Eleven years later, in 1979, another police officer was killed by a member of ETA. The victim was having a cup of coffee with his wife in a bar and was shot through the head. The culprit is a priest from San Sebastiàn, Capuchin Father Fernando Arburúa.

Progressive Church

The Church in the Basque country used to play an important role in Catholic Spain. Vocations were plentiful and seminarians received an excellent intellectual and theological formation. There were many missionaries as well, the churches were full, and the religious processions very popular.

Experts claim, however, that this successful church was a breeding ground for the politicization of the Basque identity.

“Religion and politics were always intertwined in the Basque Country,” Ontoso said. “At a certain point a large part of the clergy was nationalistic. The Basque Church was more progressive compared to the rest of Spain.”

How did nationalism get such a strong hold on this part of the country? Ontoso pointed to the Spanish Civil War, won by Franco, and the beginning of four decades of dictatorship.

“In the Basque Country the nationalists supported the republic, and 80 percent of the priests were nationalists. This meant that the Basque Church lost the war as well. It gave rise to anti-Franco sentiments, against dictatorship. The Church opposed Franco as well and offered support to the opposition. This was also the time of the worker-priests and the birth of the liberation theology in Latin America,” the journalist said.

Conflict with the Vatican

The Church in the Basque country was also a huge promoter of the Basque language, one reason for its firm bond with the people.

“At a certain point the political and national fight merged with the social one. There was much talk of the repression of the Basque people and this had political as well as pastoral consequences. The fight against Franco became one of resistance,” Ontoso said.

The 1960s saw the rise of a very powerful movement of priests and religious who wrote letters standing up for the people. Those letters were published through news agencies and then sent to the Vatican. This led to a conflict between the Basque Church and Rome, and the latter decided to take action.

The Vatican decided to bring about a change of direction by replacing the bishops one by one with more conservative and less nationalistic prelates. The Vatican felt that the Church in the Basque country was concerning itself too much with politics and nationalism, and should have been focusing instead on evangelization.

“The Vatican noted a rapid rise in secularization, blaming the Basque clergy for becoming too political and as a result less focused on evangelization. It was an operation that took much time, but slowly the Vatican got a bigger hold on the Church in the Basque country,” said Ontoso.

Turning point

In 1995, Ricardo Blázquez was named bishop of Bilbao. Blázquez, not from the Basque country himself, immediately challenged the policy of the Basque bishops by personally leading funeral services for ETA’s victims. It was a turning point for the Basque Church.

In 2007, Francisco Pérez González was named archbishop of Pamplona. Pérez was a former bishop to the Spanish armed forces and his nomination was a cause for resistance. Two years later Pope Benedict XVI named José Ignacio Munilla bishop of San Sebastián. His nomination led to an angry letter by 130 Basque priests who felt he was unsuited for the position. Even though Munilla was born in the Basque country, he was firmly against its independence from Spain.

Today the Basque clergy is one of the oldest in Spain. It is estimated that more than ten percent of all priests still take a positive view of nationalism.

“The new set of priests has other worries, like people not coming to church anymore and a lack of vocations. They follow the line of Pope Francis, who focuses on evangelization and the poor,” Ontoso said.


Despite the thorough transformation of the Basque Church, there is still a lot of work to do to clear its name. According to Ontoso, people are still suffering because of its actions, especially victims of ETA and their families. He points to the importance of reconciliation with the past.

“Although you cannot condemn the whole Basque Church for the actions of its individual members, some of them actively participated in the rise of ETA. They were involved in its development and in its ending. Looking back at the past can be painful, especially if that past isn’t pretty. But it is a necessary thing to do,” he said.

The Basque Church didn’t speak clearly about the moral difference between the goals and means of ETA and especially on this point, Ontoso said the Church has a lot to make up for.

“They condemned the attacks and I believe their pastoral care for their region was sincere. However, what the Basque Church failed to do was show their public support to the victims of ETA’s terrorism. That’s what’s still haunting the Church today,” he said, adding the Basque Church should have done more.

“Pope Francis washes the feet of inmates and immigrants on Holy Thursday. Why haven’t the Basque bishops done the same with twelve relatives of ETA’s victims? Why have they never closed down their churches in protest of ETA’s crimes? During those times, the Church had enormous influence in the region and a gesture like that would have meant so much. Still, they chose not to do it. That’s the great sin of the Basque Church,” Ontoso said.

This article was originally published in the Dutch Catholic weekly Katholiek Nieuwsblad on July 5th 2019. It was translated for Crux by Susanne Kurstjens-van den Berk.

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