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MADRID – In a letter to Mexican bishops last month, Pope Francis called for a re-examination of the country’s history, especially the role of the Roman Catholic Church, and urged members of the clergy to “recognize the mistakes painful incidents committed in the past ”.

Yet it was not in Mexico that his remarks sparked controversy, but in Spain, where the right wing quickly rallied to the country’s role in the conquest of the Americas, alongside the Church there is more. 500 years old.

Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the conservative leader of Madrid, said she was surprised that “a Catholic who speaks Spanish speaks this way”, adding that Spain had brought “civilization and freedom” to the Americas. And a former prime minister said he was proud of the conquest.

The reactions, on the eve of Spain’s celebration of its version of Columbus Day, were less about history and more about Spain’s current political moment: how far should the country’s conservatives lean towards nationalism for try to increase their popularity?

It is particularly disturbing in a country which is still overwhelmed by the not so distant memory of the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. Franco ruled until his death in 1975, stoking nationalist sentiment with sacred symbols like the cross, flag and bullfighting.

Ms. Ayuso’s Popular Party was founded decades ago by politicians in the Franco regime who wanted to turn a new leaf. They have been cautious about nationalism, wary of any accusation of going back to the past.

José Manuel García-Margallo, who served as foreign minister in the People’s Party government in the mid-2010s, said the party must hold common ground or risk losing its way.

“It’s our mission now: to get back to the center,” he said.

The recent rhetoric from the right has caught the attention of left-wing politicians, who say they fear the conservative center in Spain is becoming more extreme, much like the momentum that brought Brexit and Donald Trump into the mainstream in the Great -Brittany and the United States.

“Trumpism has had a very important influence, not only in America, but also in Europe and Spain,” said Manuela Carmena, retired judge and former left-wing mayor of Madrid.

For many years, the People’s Party “had two different souls,” she said, one moderate, the other not. And, she said, the extreme side had gained ground.

The Popular Party is no longer in power since the ouster in 2018 of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, a socialist, has engaged with a minority government of left-wing parties, a coalition that has survived the pandemic and has proven to be more enduring than many predicted.

The People’s Party has spent much of the past few years defending itself against a series of corruption cases, which have engulfed a former treasurer and former prime ministers. But perhaps the party’s biggest challenge has come from the far right in the form of an upstart nationalist party called Vox.

Founded in 2013 by a politician who broke with the Popular Party, Vox has looked deeply into Spanish nationalist taboos and has at times defended Franco. His anti-immigrant stances, considered racist by critics, have been hailed by figures such as Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s former adviser, who also advised Vox.

The growth of the party – now the third in the national parliament – has raised concerns among some senior politicians that the Tories are increasingly tempted to follow Vox further to the right.

On Sunday, the President of the People’s Party, Pablo Casado, presented the group’s platform in a fiery speech from the floor of a bullfighting arena. He surprised some analysts with a tough tone against immigration, abortion and a separatist movement in the Catalonia region.

“We have come for a reset on government disasters,” he said, referring to what he called the “last three dark years.”

The Pope’s latest statement on Mexico, in a letter last month, was not the first time Francis has sought to make amends for the church’s role in the colonization of the Americas, which included forced conversion and l slavery of indigenous peoples and Africans. In 2015, he made a historic public apology during a visit to Bolivia, where he expressed regret for the church’s “grave sins” against the natives during the conquest.

But it was the first time that his comments on the subject had become such a political issue in Spain.

Asking for forgiveness is “part of the culture of annulment, of the destruction of the history of nations of which we are so proud,” said Jorge Buxadé, one of Vox’s main leaders.

One of the first to react to the pope’s comments was Ms Ayuso, the leader of the Madrid region and perhaps the most powerful rising star in the People’s Party, known for her controversial statements.

Then José María Aznar, a former prime minister, defended the Spanish conquest at the party’s national convention last week.

“I am inclined to be very proud of it, I do not ask forgiveness,” he said of the colonial era.

It is a subject that his party leaders have not talked about much in the past. But Vox leaders did so, giving the impression that the People’s Party was trying to seize the issue to build support.

In an interview in her office this week, Ms. Ayuso said there was nothing radical in the defense of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. She accused those pushing the historical debate of promoting a kind of left-wing identity politics, which she sees as the main source of the country’s divisions.

“There are politicians who want to revise Spanish history and heritage, and there is a feeling that we must now blame the Spaniards for a so-called original sin,” she said.

Ms Ayuso presented her own vision of what a conservative government might look like, based on free market ideology and the understanding that the People’s Party is a “common home that unites market liberals, conservatives and the people. influenced by Christian humanism ”.

But she said she was not afraid of the country’s cultural wars. Ms Ayuso expressed her frustration with Spanish feminists, who she said failed to recognize that men could also be targets of sexism. She also challenged LGBT activists and abortion rights.

While she said she didn’t always agree with Vox, she praised the Nationalist Party for forming a government coalition with her for the Madrid region.

“I think people confuse being tough and extreme,” she said of her positions. “And you have to be clear about what you want to be.”

With no indication yet of when the next national elections in Spain could be called, it is too early to know if the People’s Party could join Vox in governing at the national level, as they did with Ms Ayuso at the national level. regional in Madrid. Mr Casado has long argued with Santiago Abascal, the Vox frontman, and both sides have said they are eager to claim each other’s voters.

But Mr Buxadé, who is Vox’s representative in the European Parliament, praised Ms Ayuso, saying she has shown she is capable of making good deals with the party.

As Vox prepared to commemorate Spain’s role in conquering the Americas on National Day next week, Mr Buxade said he appreciated the step back against the pope’s comments.

But the debate has left historians perplexed.

Whether Spain should apologize to Mexico was a moot point, said Josep Maria Fradera, a historian of Spanish colonialism at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, ​​noting that neither country existed as a ‘Nation state in the 1500s.

Mr Fradera said Spanish politicians should spend their time trying to understand history better, rather than using it as a political chip.

“It’s just another way to reinforce the worst kind of Spanish nationalism,” he said.

Roser Toll Pifarré contributed reporting from Barcelona, ​​Spain, and Jose bautista from Madrid.

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