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Madrid leader takes issue with pope’s apology for ‘painful errors’ in Mexico

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The rightwing president of the Madrid region has taken issue with the pope’s recent apology for the church’s “very painful errors” in Mexico, and said Spanish conquistadors brought Catholicism, civilisation and freedom to Latin America.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, touted as a possible future leader of Spain’s conservative People’s party, has a history of provocative pronouncements.

The latest came during a visit to the US on Tuesday, a day after Pope Francis – the first Latin American pontiff – sent a message to Mexican bishops to mark the bicentenary of Mexican independence.

In it, the pope apologised for the role the church had played in the country’s history, saying the anniversary “necessarily includes a process of purifying memory, that is, recognising the very painful errors committed in the past”.

He added: “For that reason, on several occasions, I and my predecessors have asked forgiveness for the social and personal sins that by commission or omission did not contribute to evangelisation.”

Francis’s words did not impress Ayuso. “I’m surprised that a Catholic who speaks Spanish should talk that way about a legacy such as ours, which actually took Spanish – and through the [religious] missions – Catholicism, and therefore civilisation and freedom, to the American continent,” she said. “It’s just surprising. There’s not much more I can say.”

The Guardian has contacted the Vatican for comment. Robert Mickens, editor in chief of the Catholic newspaper La Croix International, based in Rome, said the pope had not said anything “Earth-shaking”, nor gone further than in previous comments. “The main point is the treatment of the indigenous people – this is a theme that the pope has been touching on for a long time,” Mickens said.

“He said it a couple of times on journeys in Latin America … being an Argentine, they wiped out whole populations. In other parts of Latin America there are still large indigenous communities, but I think Chile and Argentina really did a number on the indigenous [peoples] … He said this is wrong and has asked forgiveness in the past, even on Latin American soil.”

A woman demonstrating against colonialism outside Spain’s embassy in Mexico City holds a sign reading ‘It was genocide, not encounter’, next to other protest banners. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

Two days earlier, Ayuso had attacked “populist” indigenous movements across Latin America, saying they were promoting “a simplistic revision of Spanish history” and trying to “wreck Spain’s legacy in the Americas … [such as] the mixing and fusion of cultures that have forged such strong Atlantic links”.

She said Spain’s legacy in the Americas was “one of the greatest landmarks in history” and accused Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and other regional leaders, of “promoting an indigenism that is the new communism”.

In March 2019, López Obrador wrote to King Felipe of Spain and Pope Francis, urging them to apologise for the “abuses” of colonialism and the conquest.

Spain’s socialist-led government dismissed the call, saying “the arrival of the Spanish on Mexican soil 500 years ago cannot be judged in the light of contemporary considerations”.

The pope, meanwhile, had addressed the subject during a 2015 visit to Bolivia, when he asked for forgiveness “for crimes committed against native peoples during the so-called conquest of America”.

Ayuso’s remarks mirror those of the far-right Vox party, which supports her regional government. In a social media post last month to mark the 500th anniversary of the conquest of Mexico, it said: “Spain succeeded in liberating millions of people from the bloody regime and terror of the Aztecs. Proud of our history.”

She had billed the choice facing the region’s voters as a toss-up between “communism and freedom” and laughed off criticisms from her detractors, saying: “When they call you a fascist, you know you’re doing it right … and you’re on the right side of history.”

Last year, Ayuso was criticised for suggesting that Covid infections in the region were partly attributable to “the way of life” of immigrants in Madrid and their crowded living conditions.