Mexico’s president says the Vatican should apologise for ‘reprehensible atrocities’ in colonisation 500 years ago

The capture of Tenochtitlan by Hernando Cortes in 1521, after a painting by Alonzo Chappel
The capture of Tenochtitlan by Hernando Cortes in 1521, after a painting by Alonzo Chappel. Mexico has asked the Vatican to apologise for its role in the Spanish colonisation. Photograph: The Granger Collection/Alamy Stock

Mexico’s president has written to Pope Francis to ask for an apology for the Catholic church’s role in the oppression of indigenous people in the Spanish conquest 500 years ago.

The request was made in a two-page letter that also asked the Vatican to temporarily return several ancient indigenous manuscripts held in its library, ahead of next year’s 500-year anniversary of the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

The letter, dated 2 October but posted on president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Twitter page on Saturday, the same day Mexico City authorities decided to remove a statue of Christopher Columbus that protesters had threatened to knock down.

The letter was delivered to the pope by López Obrador’s wife, Beatriz Gutiérrez Müller, who met with him at the Vatican following a meeting she had on Friday with Italian president, Sergio Mattarella.

López Obrador said the Spanish crown, Spain’s government and the Vatican should apologise to native people for the “most reprehensible atrocities” committed after Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico in 1521.

“They deserve not just that generous attitude on our part but also a sincere commitment that never again will disrespectful acts be committed against their beliefs and cultures.”

The Catholic church played a key role as Spain colonised the Americas and spread its empire, setting up missions to convert indigenous people to Christianity.

López Obrador made a similar request last year in a letter to Spain’s King Felipe and the pope, but the Spanish government rejected the petition outright.

The pope did apologise in 2015 to Bolivia over the church’s role in oppression in Latin America during the Spanish colonial era.

In this month’s letter to the Vatican, López Obrador requested the return of three codices, including the Codex Borgia, an especially colourful screen-fold book spread across dozens of pages that depicts gods and rituals from ancient central Mexico.

It is one of the best-preserved examples of pre-conquest Aztec-style writing that exists, after Catholic authorities in colonial-era Mexico dismissed such codices as the work of the devil and ordered hundreds or even thousands of them burned in the decades following the 1521 conquest.

López Obrador requests the Vatican return the Codex Borgia, two other ancient codices, as well as its maps of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan for a one-year loan in 2021.