ALGIERS, Algeria (AP) — A cardinal dispatched by the Vatican to Algeria held an unusual beatification ceremony on Saturday for 19 monks, nuns and other Catholics who were killed during Algeria's civil war in the 1990s.
It was the first such ceremony in the Muslim world, according to Algeria's religious affairs minister. It came after Pope Francis recognized all 19 as martyrs in January, paving the way for Saturday's ceremony in the western Algerian city of Oran. Beatification is a step in the process of being declared a saint.
Cardinal Angelo Becciu, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, celebrated Saturday's Mass at the Notre Dame de Santa Cruz basilica as the pope's special envoy.
Those honored included seven French Trappist monks who were abducted from the monastery of Tibhirine, south of Algiers, in 1996. Soon afterward, their skulls were discovered nearby; their bodies were never found. A radical group was blamed for their beheadings, but some observers have suggested Algeria's military was responsible.
The Algerian president agreed to allow and co-organize the beatification events in Algeria, despite some lingering tensions over the deaths. Algeria's religious affairs minister, ambassadors from several countries and other foreign dignitaries attended the event.
A moment of silence was held for all the victims of what Algerians call the "black decade," when some 250,000 people were killed as the army fought an Islamist insurgency. The ceremony also honored 99 imams killed in the fighting.
The bishop of Oran, Jean-Pierre Vesco, also took a moment to honor the Algerian driver of a bishop who was killed in an attack in Oran in the 1990s.
Pope Francis invited a crowd of about 30,000 faithful in St. Peter's Square Saturday to give a round of applause to the newly beatified in Algeria.
"These martyrs of our times were faithful announcers of the Gospel, humble builders of peace and heroic witnesses to Christian charity," the pope said. He added that their "courageous witness is a source of hope for the Algerian Catholic community and a seed of dialogue for the entire society."
Francis added his hope that the beatifications would be "a stimulus to build together a world of brotherhood and solidarity."
Associated Press writers Frances D'Emilio and Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.