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Pope Francis

Arson attacks strike churches across Chile as Pope Francis visits indigenous Mapuche homeland

His three-day visit has so far been overshadowed by protests, following a report outlining the depth of sexual abuse in the local church

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 9:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 10:26pm

Unknown attackers set fire to Catholic churches and three helicopters belonging to forestry companies as Pope Francis set off for his visit to the indigenous Mapuche homeland of Araucania in Chile, police said on Wednesday.

The dawn attacks and an ambush on police were carried out to “cause disorder or disturbance of the public order” during the pope’s visit to the central city of Temuco, said police chief Bruno Villalobos.

Francis’s visit – his first to Chile as pope – has so far been overshadowed by protests, following a report outlining the depth of sexual abuse in the local church, and his appointment of a bishop who many believe covered up the country’s most prominent sex abuse scandal.

The visiting pontiff headed to the heart of Chile’s centuries-old conflict with indigenous peoples to celebrate Mass on contested land that was also used as a detention and torture facility during the country’s bloody military dictatorship.

The Maquehue Air Base in Temuco, where the Mass would be held, was built on land taken from the indigenous Mapuche in the early 20th century. It was also used as a detention centre during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, making it a place steeped in painful history.

In an ominous reminder of how the centuries-long conflict can occasionally erupt in violence, at least 10 Catholic churches, most in the Araucania region, were firebombed in the past week.

No group has taken responsibility and no arrests have been made, but in recent years Mapuche activists have burned churches to press their cause. And outside one of the churches recently attacked, pamphlets extolling the Mapuche cause were found.

The Argentine pope is attuned to indigenous issues and hopes to use his Chile and Peru visits to put the issue on the global agenda, setting the stage for a major church meeting next year on the Amazon and its native peoples.

In his opening remarks in Santiago on Tuesday, Francis urged Chileans to listen to indigenous peoples who are “often forgotten, whose rights and culture need to be protected lest that part of this nation’s identity and richness be lost”.

His statements quickly reverberated among many in the Mapuche community.

“Saying that we should be respected, that we have a right to exist and be recognised is all very strong,” said Hugo Alcaman, president of ENAMA, a Mapuche group that encourages local businesses and advocates social change. “It’s Chile that has to respond, especially politicians.”

However, an immediate solution is unlikely, as it is one of Latin America’s longest-running conflicts involving indigenous peoples.

Their disputes date back to the late 19th century, when the Chilean military finally defeated the Mapuche, who had resisted Spanish and European settlers for centuries.

Both Mapuche and Chilean government leaders have expressed hope that Francis can facilitate dialogue. Mapuche groups are pushing for ownership of ancestral lands in the southern Araucania region, legal recognition of their language and culture, and a stop to discrimination that leaders say often makes them police targets.

In recent decades, some ancestral lands have been returned to Mapuche amid surrounding controversy, university scholarships have been set aside for the indigenous youth and various aspects of the culture, such as foods, have become part of the mainstream.

Still, myriad problems persist. Araucania remains the country’s poorest region, and Mapuche complain of frequent discrimination.

Albertina Urrutia Valencia, a Mapuche activist, says the Mapuche cause is still largely invisible.

“What do you see? The burning of trucks, Mapuches in jail,” she said. “What you don’t see is what is behind all that.”

“If people are repressed for hundreds and hundreds of years, it’s obvious they are going to fight back,” she added.