ROSARIO, Argentina – Though generally refraining from denying public statements from global leaders, the Vatican on Tuesday publicly refuted the Spanish prime minister’s claim Pope Francis had helped him with the exhumation of the remains of the late head of state, General Francisco Franco.

The Vatican statement came several weeks after the head of the Spanish government, Socialist Alberto Sanchez on July 8 told the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, that the Argentine pontiff had helped him on the matters of Franco’s remains, an issue that has long divided Spain.

Franco ruled Spain for nearly four decades following the end of the country’s civil war – with the help of Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany – in 1939.

Despite the aid he received from the Axis powers, Spain remained neutral in World War 2, allowing Franco to stay in power after war’s end until his death in 1975.

The remains of the dictator were laid to rest in the the Basilica of the Valley of the Fallen. However, this has always proved controversial in Spain, especially among the country’s leftwing.

In October, the casket was transferred in a military helicopter to a cemetery in the outskirts of the Spanish capital, where the late dictator was buried in the family mausoleum, where his widow, Carmen Polo, had been buried in 1988.

Since Sanchez expressed the Socialist government’s intentions of exhuming Franco from what had been his final resting place, the Vatican released a series of statement saying it wouldn’t oppose the move if it was so decided by the competent Spanish authorities.

In his interview with Corriere della Sera, Sánchez defended the decision to take Franco out of the basilica, saying that “a dictator does not deserve a mausoleum, his victims cannot lie next to him. I’ve acted in a legal way, applying the Law of Historic Memory [approved by ex-President Jose Luis Rodriguez] Zapatero, and with ample popular support.”

Asked about the relationship between the Spanish government and the Catholic Church, Sanchez had said: “The relations are peaceful. Francis is a charismatic pope; I hope I can meet him. I’ll tell you something: In the matter of the remains of Franco, he helped me. In the Valley of the Fallen there was a community of Benedictine [monks] who were very much against the exhumation. I asked for the Vatican’s intervention. And it all went well.”

The Vatican said on Tuesday that “with regards to the statements made” by Sánchez during the interview, the Holy See “has reiterated on several occasions its respect for legality and the decisions of the competent governmental and judicial authorities, has urged dialogue between the family and the Government and has never ruled on the opportunity of the exhumation or on the place of the burial, because it is not within its competence.”

Franco’s’ family had wanted for his remains to go to the Cathedral of Almudena in Madrid, but the government opposed this measure. In 2018, the vice-president of the Spanish government, Carmen Calvo, had met with Pope Francis’ Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to voice the government’s concern over such a move.

Hundreds of thousands of people were killed during Spain’s 1936-1939 civil war, which began after a failed military coup. Franco was among the coup leaders and battled the left-leaning Republican and Communist government that had won the elections during Spain’s Second Republic.

His remains had been placed in the Valle de los Caidos, where some 34,000 victims of the Civil War are buried in mass graves. Though victims from both sides of the war are buried here, for many it’s become a monument for Spain’s right, as it was partially built by Franco’s political prisoners.

Franco’s legacy is controversial, as the nature of his dictatorship changed over time. It included brutal repression, especially at the beginning, with some 30,000 people executed, but also economic prosperity, which improved the quality of life in Spain. Some observers have noted the evolution of his government allowed for a social and economic reform, while others emphasize he centralized the government at the detriment of the country’s regions, and his regime was  authoritarian, nationalist and anti-communist.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma