South African Benedict Daswa, who was bludgeoned to death 25 years ago for resisting witchcraft, now has the title of blessed.
The schoolteacher was beatified Sunday in ceremonies that drew about 30,000 people to the remote northern South Africa village of Tshitanini, near his home in Limpopo province.
Cardinal Angelo Amato, prefect of the Congregation for Saints' Causes, said during the beatification Mass that Blessed Daswa "gave historic witness to the Gospel, even to the shedding of blood" and that "from now on will be called 'blessed.'"
Daswa, who was 43 when he was murdered in 1990, is the first person from the southern African region to undergo beatification, a step toward sainthood.
Daswa was killed by fellow villagers after he refused to pay a sorcerer who promised to end lightning storms that were causing heavy damage in the region.
At the time, all households in the community were expected to contribute a small amount of money to a man known as "the doctor" who would then identify the person believed to be responsible for causing the storms, and that person would be killed, said Fr. S'milo Mngadi, communications officer for the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference.
"He had said that, as a Catholic, he could not accept the power of witchcraft nor the attacks of witch hunt," the bishops' conference said in a statement, noting that, "for that, the church has recognized him as a blessed martyr."
Daswa, born June 16, 1946, was married with eight children, including one born a few months after his death. His children sat in front at the beatification Mass alongside their 91-year-old grandmother, Thidziambi Ida Daswa.
South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa attended the ceremony, which followed an overnight vigil by thousands of people.
Daswa died Feb. 2, 1990, the day South Africa's apartheid regime announced it would release anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela.
The attack occurred as he was driving home and found the road blocked with stones and logs. As he got out of his car, he was stoned by people hiding in nearby bushes. He ran to the closest hut with his attackers in pursuit, and a woman who saw where he entered pointed him out after being threatened.
He prayed "Father, receive my spirit," as they clubbed him to death, the bishops' conference said. To ensure he was dead, his attackers poured boiling water into his ears and nostrils.
Daswa "was a committed lay Catholic and the loving husband and father of a large family; a dedicated teacher and volunteer catechist," and "an active and charitable member of the community," Archbishop Stephen Brislin of Cape Town, president of the bishops' conference, said in a statement.
His "great moral courage and his passion for the truth led him to openly and very publicly oppose the belief and practice of witchcraft," the archbishop said.
"This courageous witness to the faith led to his martyrdom," he said.
"Aware of the fear caused by the practices of identifying witches, the harm this does to the fabric of social relations and the inevitable killing of innocent people, he was prepared to oppose this practice which still persists today, out of love for Christ and at the cost of his own life," Brislin said.
Unknown outside his village when he died, Daswa's fame grew slowly, Bishop Joao Noe Rodrigues of Tzaneen, South Africa, told Catholic News Service Monday.
Witchcraft is a taboo subject in South Africa, and many people have died in the practice of witchcraft, in opposing it and in witch hunts, he said.
The bishop called upon communities that have "deep-seated" cultural attachments to openly discuss the practice.
It is hoped that Daswa's "legacy will be to develop healing and truth in the community in which he lived and beyond," he added.
Mngadi said Ramaphosa told the congregation that "for people to honor Blessed Daswa means putting a final stop to witchcraft killings."
Murder charges against the teacher's killers were dropped after the state could not find witnesses prepared to testify, he said.
Daswa's family "has forgiven the perpetrators, acknowledging their youth and that there was manipulation by a ringleader, known to the family, who has since died," the bishop noted.
"The family understands the context of his death and, although they have suffered great hurt, they have forgiven" those responsible, he said.
Pope Francis announced in January that the South African would be beatified.
In his Sunday address in St. Peter's Square Sept. 13, the pope said Daswa had "always showed great consistency, courageously defending Christian views and rejecting worldly and pagan customs."
Daswa's feast day will be celebrated Feb. 1.