The bishops' conference of Spain warned of conflict over government plans to remove Catholic symbols from a civil war memorial site near Madrid from which the remains of former dictator Gen. Francisco Franco were exhumed a year ago.

"If there is a cross and basilica, it's important there should also be a community to maintain worship there. We must immunize ourselves against a culture of confrontation," said Auxiliary Bishop Luis Arguello Garcia of Valladolid, Spain, secretary general of the bishops' conference.

"People in the church have different ideological perspectives, and problems occur when attempts are made to put faith at the service of one ideology," he said of a draft law by the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez that would convert the Valley of the Fallen into a civil cemetery.

The change would lead to the closing of a Benedictine monastery and removing other Catholic features at the site.

Speaking to journalists Oct. 1 after a meeting of the conference's Permanent Commission, the bishop said Catholic symbols served as a "sign of reconciliation" at the site. A civil cemetery would be "anachronistic" and endanger agreements forged during Spain's late 1970s transition to democracy, he said.

Lay Catholics also criticized the government's proposal and called on Christians worldwide to defend a 450-foot memorial cross, the world's tallest, from demolition at the site.

"Less than a century ago in Spain, Christians suffered one of the largest and bloodiest persecutions in history at the hands of a dark coalition of socialists, communists and anarchists," the Association to Defend the Valley of the Fallen said in a Sept. 28 appeal.

"Since its inauguration, this Valley has been an immense cemetery, with an imposing Catholic temple serving as a place of memory and reconciliation, and a reminder of what must never happen again," the association said.

Franco's remains were reburied October 2019 in Madrid's El Pardo Cemetery, after being exhumed from a pontifical basilica in the Valley of the Fallen. He died in 1975 after ruling Spain for almost four decades after the 1936-1939 civil war. The cemetery in the valley contains the graves of 34,000 victims from both sides.

Deputy Prime Minister Carmen Calvo said Sept. 15 that a transitional board would supervise removal of the Benedictine community and other Catholic symbols under the proposed law, which also will annul Franco-era trials and offer "recognition, reparation and dignity for victims of fascism."

However, more than 56,000 Spaniards urged church leaders and the Vatican's nuncio, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, to oppose the move in a mid-September CitizenGO petition, which warned it would "set a very dangerous precedent affecting religious freedom and the rights of Spanish believers."

The Benedictine community said Sept. 29 it had "worked, prayed and studied" at the valley for 62 years, offering a welcome "to those seeking a few days of retreat and inner peace."