The Roman Catholic Church plans a lavish ceremony Sunday to beatify 498 "martyrs" of the Spanish Civil War, just three days before the Spanish parliament was expected to pass a landmark law acknowledging the victims of the war and its aftermath.
The Spanish Catholic Church denied any linkage between the mass beatification, the biggest in the history of the Church, and the new law, which will fulfill an election pledge of socialist Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
The beatification process, begun in 1987, "has nothing to do with any political agenda," said the secretary general of the Spanish Bishops Conference, Monsignor Juan Antonio Martinez Camino.
The initiative "did not stem from resentment but from reconciliation," he said.
Still, the architect of the draft law, Jose Torres Mora, will take part in the beatification mass, and the Spanish government will be represented by Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
Nearly all of Spain's bishops and tens of thousands of pilgrims will take part.
The mass in Saint Peter's Square is to be celebrated by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, while Pope Benedict XVI is to address a message to the pilgrims.
Since the 498 victims -- including two bishops, 24 priests, 462 nuns and monks, three deacons or seminarians and seven lay people -- are considered martyrs, the requirement of evidence of having performed a miracle is waived.
Most were killed in 1936, at the start of the war that tore Spain apart after the nationalist uprising of General Francisco Franco against the republican Popular Front government.
Beatification is a first step on the road to sainthood.
Historians say several thousand monks and nuns were killed by republican sympathisers before and during the war, which claimed half a million lives on both sides.
After the defeat of the republicans, 50,000 of them were executed by nationalist forces and tens of thousands were incarcerated.
Zapatero, whose grandfather was a republican captain shot dead by Franco's forces, raised the hopes of the victims' families when he came to power in 2004 promising to acknowledge them in a major law.
On October 15, Zapatero expressed his "deep respect" for the Church's beatification initiative, but asked for equal respect for the new law in the name of democratic "maturity."
Pope John Paul II oversaw the beatification of 471 victims of the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War in the course of 11 group ceremonies.
In Italy, where initiatives by the Vatican often spur debate, several left-wing newspapers questioned such a high-profile beatification for the victims only of the nationalists in a war notable for atrocities committed on both sides.
The American on-line newspaper National Catholic Reporter noted that among those to be beatified is a monk, Gabino Olaso Zabala, who was found guilty of torture while working as a missionary in the Philippines.