Claretian Martyrs Are Executed in Spain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Over a period of days, Republican militia executed fifty-one Claretian priests and seminarians in one of the Spanish Civil War’s most brutal episodes of anticlerical persecution. Thousands of priests, nuns, and laypeople were ultimately killed during the war.

Summary of Event

The extensive persecution, brutal treatment, and summary executions of Catholic clergy and laypeople during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) is one of the conflict’s most overlooked elements. The most intense period of killings of innocent clergy and laypeople occurred in the first few months of the civil war, before the so-called international brigades of the Republican cause began arriving in Spain. Nearly 7,000 clergy members were killed, more than half of whom were diocesan bishops. The rest were priests or seminarians, including 283 nuns. The exact number of laypeople killed is difficult to establish, but it certainly numbered several thousand and may have been as high as tens of thousands. [kw]Claretian Martyrs Are Executed in Spain (Aug. 2-18, 1936) [kw]Martyrs Are Executed in Spain, Claretian (Aug. 2-18, 1936) [kw]Spain, Claretian Martyrs Are Executed in (Aug. 2-18, 1936) Claretian martyrs Spanish Civil War (1936-1939);Claretian martyrs Anticlericalism;Spain [g]Spain;Aug. 2-18, 1936: Claretian Martyrs Are Executed in Spain[09240] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;Aug. 2-18, 1936: Claretian Martyrs Are Executed in Spain[09240] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Aug. 2-18, 1936: Claretian Martyrs Are Executed in Spain[09240] Asensio Barroso, Florentino Munárriz Azcona, Felipe de Jesús Pérez García, Faustino Franco, Francisco

Anticlericalism had been on the rise in Spain since the early nineteenth century, when the fortunes of the Spanish Empire waned, and the country became vulnerable to foreign intervention. As the collapse of Spanish power gave rise to a debate about how to restore the country’s former greatness, a small, mostly urban, politically progressive, and anticlerical elite emerged. This group blamed traditional Catholicism as the cause of national decline. On the other hand, a large number of Spaniards, most of whom came from rural areas, continued to cling to the Catholic faith and to more conservative and traditionalist attitudes. Added to these two schools of thought was another, more complicated set of issues that surrounded regionalist and nationalist or centralist strategies for ruling the country. Centralists tended to be anticlerical, while the clergy tended to rally to the regionalist cause. The Napoleonic invasion of 1808 revealed this division and gave rise to the first anticlerical government in 1810, ushering in a dynastic struggle that persisted through the nineteenth century.

A complicated politics of land expropriations by the government gradually deprived the Church of much of its property and increased its dependence on bourgeois elements in Spanish society. In the class conflict that resulted, the Church largely supported the middle class, which led to a sense of resentment against the clergy by the working classes. The struggle over control of education also pitted clerical and anticlerical parties. Democratic and radical political parties emerged at the turn of the century, and levels of anticlerical sentiment varied among the disparate groups that comprised the left wing of the Spanish populace, which included many Freemasons, atheists, communists, anarchists, and moderate socialists. Many leftists considered the Catholic Church to be helplessly enmeshed in aristocratic and monarchial thinking and part of a Spanish legacy that had to be uprooted for the country to establish a modern democracy. It is equally certain, however, that at least half of the Spanish population continued to be Catholic in sentiment, even if they did not regularly practice the religion.

The deep cultural divisions in the country became even more obvious after World War I, as governmental authority disintegrated. A military coup in 1923 imposed only a semblance of order, and eventually Republican and Socialist parties toppled the monarchy in April 1931. Agreeing on little except the need for anticlerical policies, the Republican-Socialist coalition imposed brazenly antireligious policies that prohibited any public display of religion, including traditional processions and even the simple wearing of crucifixes. Anarchists began another wave of church burnings, driving many lukewarm Catholics otherwise disposed toward reform away from the left-wing coalition. The elections of 1933 and 1936 showed a country almost evenly split, but when the Republican-Socialist bloc took power in 1936 (after conservatives won the popular vote but lost control of Parliament), the Popular Front declared amnesty and anarchists freed from prison went on a rampage of anticlerical violence. In July of 1936, the army rose to oppose the Republican government, and the active phase of the Spanish Civil War began.

Murders of priests, bishops, and other church members occurred in almost every area dominated by Republican forces: Churches, convents, and monasteries were attacked and destroyed, and those members of congregations who did not flee were attacked. In the Madrid region alone, more than 1,100 clerics—about 30 percent of the diocesan clergy—were killed. By far the highest proportion of clergy killed was in Barbastro, where 123 of its 140 clergy were murdered by Republican anarchists. Among those shot to death was Barbastro’s bishop, Florentino Asensio Barroso. On July 20, the local Republican committee, which was composed of both Republican sympathizers and anarchists, broke into the Claretian house, arrested its three most senior priests, including the seminary rector, Felipe de Jesús Munárriz Azcona, and placed them in separate prison cells.

After the arrival of the much more radical and bloodthirsty Catalan Columns on July 25, pressure mounted to begin executions of the detained clergy. The three Claretian superiors were executed, along with other local clergy, on August 2. The fifty remaining Claretians were detained over the next few weeks and subjected to degrading conditions before being killed. The six oldest priests were executed on August 12, and the rest were put to death in groups over the days that followed, with the exception of two Argentine seminarians who were released and later recounted the inhumane and degrading treatment of their classmates as well as the occasional humane acts performed by their captors. The two freed clerics also carried a handwritten farewell address written (on a chocolate wrapper) by Faustino Pérez García in which the doomed priest and his associates forgave their persecutors. The last two Claretians of Barbastro were murdered on August 18. Although executions continued throughout other parts of Republican-held Spain, the Barbastro bloodbath was over as virtually all the priests in the area had been exterminated. The Catalan Columns then moved on to more fertile ground.


Although atrocities occurred on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, the concentrated fury against innocent clergy was especially notable in the war’s first months, and it pushed many Spaniards, including some of the more moderate Catholics, to support General Francisco Franco, who promised to deliver relief from the anticlerical carnage. As the decades passed and the partisan passions subsided, historians were able to better assess and attain a more balanced understanding of the atrocities committed on all sides of a complicated cauldron of political animosities. Caught in the middle of this tragic violence were many innocent religious people whose heroism was recognized not only by historians but also by the Catholic Church, which began the process of beatification and canonization of many of the Spanish martyrs, including the fifty-one Claretians of Barbastro. The Claretians were beatified by Pope John Paul II on October 25, 1992. The barbarity of the Spanish Civil War sometimes seems to pale in comparison when set against the backdrop of the even more extensive barbarisms of Nazi and Communist regimes in Europe during and after World War II. However, the Spanish atrocities did illustrate the degree to which hatred of religion could lead political regimes that were otherwise dedicated to progressive social programs to debase themselves in patently unjust outbursts of brutality against clearly innocent and harmless religious believers. Claretian martyrs Spanish Civil War (1936-1939);Claretian martyrs Anticlericalism;Spain

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Royal, Robert. The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. New York: Crossroad Publishing, 2000. Contains an excellent summary chapter on anticlerical persecution during the Spanish revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sánchez, José M. The Spanish Civil War as a Religious Tragedy. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1985. A scholarly account by an expert on anticlericalism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986. A balanced assessment of this bitter conflict by a respected British historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Villegas, Gabriel Campo. Claretian Martyrs of Barbastro. Scalan Association, Glenlivet, Scotland. One of the most extensive historical reconstructions of the Barbastro incident available, based on collected eyewitness testimony.

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Categories: History