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Amid 'dirty war' debate, Argentines divided by pope's legacy

The celebration of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio's ascension to the highest leadership position in the Catholic Church continued Thursday both in the pews, and slums, of Buenos Aires. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – At the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Caacupé, in Barracks, a Buenos Aires neighborhood, people have been gathering daily to share their jubilation over the election of their former parish priest as Pope Francis.

"We are still flying, we have not woken up," said Rita Espinola. "We thought it would be the Brazilian, then the Italian. And then they said ‘Bergoglio’ and cheers overflowed our neighborhood.”

The church is the heart of this low-income community of some 35,000, many of them maids and construction workers.

"This poor, humble place burst with joy when we heard the news," said Father Facundo Berretta, the new leader of the parish who was ordained by the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 2007.


Parishioners say they are grateful Bergoglio continued to visit them, even as he climbed through the ranks of the Catholic Church, reaching the position of archbishop and cardinal in 2001. They describe seeing Bergoglio in his robes getting off the bus a few blocks from the church to join them in religious processions.   

But not all Argentines are such fans. Some critics allege that Bergoglio failed to protect priests and challenge the military dictatorship during Argentina’s so-called “dirty war” from 1976 to 1983.

The Vatican strongly denied the accusations that Francis was silent during human rights abuses by the former dictatorship on Friday. Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters the accusations “must be clearly and firmly denied.”

Erika Angulo/ NBC News

Rosa Nair Amuedo de Maddalena, a member of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, speaks with reporters in front of Buenos Aires National Cathedral on Thursday. Her daughter was kidnapped during Argentina's so-called 'Dirty War' in 1976.

Dark chapter
Still, the elevation of Bergoglio to pope did not stop others from alleging he did not do enough to protect those persecuted by the dictatorship during Argentina’s darkest days.

On Thursday “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" marched around the square in front of the National Cathedral, as they do every Thursday afternoon, demanding justice for their children who disappeared during Argentina’s military dictatorship.

The mothers, who formed their group in 1977, have long demanded that they be reunited with their missing children. Military leaders have admitted that more than 9,000 are unaccounted for; but the mothers say the number is closer to 30,000.  

One leader of the group, Ines Vazquez, said Francis is now blessing the world, but he didn't offer blessings for those who were hurt during the time of the dictatorship. She questioned whether the pope will do something to help the mothers' cause in the future.

Bergoglio was in charge of a Jesuit congregation in 1976 when two priests from the group where abducted by agents of the dictatorship, according to journalist Horacio Verbistky. It was later discovered that the priests, Francisco Jalics and Orlando Yorio, had been tortured.   

While being questioned by investigators in November 2010, Bergoglio testified that as the priests' superior he had alerted them that they were in danger of falling victim to what he called the "military paranoia" if they continued working in a particular slum. After their abductions, he met with dictator Jorge Videla and with military commanders to advocate for the priests' freedom, he told investigators.  

The priests survived, but critics say Bergoglio should have publicly defended them and criticized the regime. 

Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel wrote in an op-ed published Friday in El Clarin newspaper: "I do not believe Jorge Bergoglio was an accomplice of the dictatorship, but he lacked courage to accompany our fight for human rights during the most difficult times." 

‘How far could he have gone to protect people?
Many well-known Argentinians have come out to defend Bergoglio. Human rights advocate Graciela Fernandez Meijide, who describes herself as an atheist, said speculating about Bergoglio playing a role in the abuses is unfair. 

"How far could he have gone to protect people?" she asked journalists, describing how her own son was abducted from her house during the dictatorship and she was unable to save him. She said human rights investigators never found proof that Bergoglio was involved.

She added that she believes Argentine President Cristina Fernandez Kirchner is fomenting the criticism of Bergoglio.

Relations between the president and the former cardinal could be described as tense. During sermons he often accused the administration of not helping the poor enough and of distorting inflation numbers. But relations became more heated when the cardinal led the fight against the president's attempts to legalize gay marriage in 2010. Bergoglio described it as the devil's work.

He lost, and gay marriage is now legal in Argentina.  

However, the president did wish Bergoglio well upon finding out he would be the new pope. 

‘A treasure’
Back at Bergoglio’s old church, parishioners were happy to swap stories about their old priest who last visited on Dec. 8, when he administered the sacrament of confirmation to dozens of neighbors.  

Raul Valdivieso came to show friends a photo of himself and his wife with Bergoglio. He said the priest baptized most of his family members. "We even ate 'choripan' together,” said Valdivieso, referring to the traditional Argentinian meal of sausage on Italian bread. He also liked drinking "mate," a traditional tea made with herbs, others said.

"The church today needs a pope with that kind of humility,” said Father Berretta, the parish leader. He added that he is very proud that the church has a Hispanic pope.  "For us he is a treasure."  

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Full coverage of Pope Francis from NBC News