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VATICAN CITY — Friar Junipero Serra, an 18th century Franciscan who brought Christianity to California and is accused by Native American groups of colonial crimes, will be made a saint, the Vatican said Wednesday.

The decision was taken by Pope Francis in a Tuesday meeting with the head of the Vatican’s saint-making department, Cardinal Angelo Amato, a statement said.

The move had long been expected. Francis announced sainthood plans for Serra in January, and said he would personally preside over his canonization mass during a September 23 visit to Washington, part of a trip taking him to Cuba and the United States.

On Saturday, speaking at a U.S. seminary in Rome, the pontiff hailed Serra as “a tireless missionary,” and as “one of the founding fathers of the United States,” as well as a “special patron of the Hispanic people of the country.”

He added that the friar had “defended the indigenous peoples against abuses by the colonizers.”

Serra was born in Spain in 1713 and died in Mexico in 1784. He founded the first nine Catholic missions in modern-day California, which was at the time ruled by the Spanish.

Native American activists consider him an accomplice in the brutalities committed by Spanish invaders. The Catholic Church strongly rejects such accusations.

The group Mexica Movement held protests against the planned canonization on Saturday, outside the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Citlalli Anahuac, a member of the organization, told local TV network KABC channel 7 that “to canonize Junipero Serra is to canonize the genocide against us, as indigenous people.”

She added: “His job was to kill the indigenous people, who we were as a people, and instead revive us as Christians.”

Photo: Wally Gobetz via Flickr

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