ROSARIO, Argentina – As Chile reels from protest and tumult fueled by a push to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era constitution, the Catholic Church appears caught in the middle, with two churches being torched over the weekend while onlookers cheered, part of a broader pattern of street violence.
At least five people have been arrested for setting one of those churches ablaze, with one detained inside the church and four outside. Twitter videos show protesters entering the back of the church, removing religious figures and other objects that were either destroyed or used to erect barricades.
The violence came as part of broad national demonstrations ahead of a referendum next Sunday to decide whether, and how, a new constitution will be drafted to replace the one adopted during Augusto Pinochet’s notorious military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. The spark for the movement was a modest increase last year of 30 pesos, the equivalent at the time of 4 U.S. cents, in the cost of a subway card, but the protests have since morphed into a broad critique of the country’s economic model and high cost of living and culminated in the press for a new constitution.
Observers say it’s unclear why the two churches in Santiago, the national capital – the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the parish of the Carabineros, Santiago’s police force – were targeted. Some cite popular anger over Chile’s massive clerical sexual abuse scandals, others say it’s a broader rage against all national institutions.
Some believe the churches are mostly targets of opportunity, and still others suggest it’s actually the police and security forces fomenting the violence, helping to explain why one of the churches burned was the police parish.
Last but not least, several news outlets speak of “sports hooligans” and organized crime hiding behind the protests to reduce the economic gap in order to perpetrate attacks against key institutions, including police precincts.
Whatever the cause, Catholic leaders in Chile have condemned not just the church attacks but the resort to violence amid tensions over the constitutional referendum.
“Violence is bad, and whoever sows violence reaps destruction, pain and death,” said Archbishop Celestino Aos, of Santiago, on Sunday, hours after the videos showcasing the violent scenes of a church spire falling consumed by flames became viral on social media.
“Let us never justify any violence,” he added in a statement.
Tens of thousands gathered in the central square of Santiago, the country’s capital, to mark the anniversary of what the country has dubbed “18O,” for Oct. 18, the date the protests broke out last year, eventually leaving more than 30 dead and thousands injured.
In broad strokes, opinion in Chile appears polarized between progressives who see a new constitution as a path to a more just social order, and conservatives who believe the existing document brought stability to Chile at a time of chaos.
The government of President Sebastian Piñera has called on demonstrators to be peaceful and to respect coronavirus restrictions. The pandemic has hit Chile hard, with 13,600 people dead and more than 490,000 infected.
Yet the peaceful tone the rallies had Sunday morning progressed into looting and torching as sunset came.
Two Catholic churches were burned in Santiago, #Chile today, amidst protest.
Archbishop Celestino Aos, of Santiago, released a statement lamenting the destruction of churches and public property, “but we regret above all the pain of so many Chilean people of peace and generosity” https://t.co/n5NmHWM90y
— Ines San Martin (@inesanma) October 19, 2020
“The poor are the most affected” by the violence, Aos argued, nothing that he’d hope the actions and images from last year’s violent rallies would not happen again this year.
“We feel the destruction of our places of worship and other public property; but above all we feel the pain of so many Chilean people of peace and generosity,” he said. “Those images not only impact and hurt in Chile, but also impact and hurt in other countries and other peoples of the world, especially Christian brothers.”
Addressing the parishioners of the two parishes torched, he said “love is stronger” than violence and hatred. He then called on all Chileans of good will to stop the violence.
“Let’s not justify the unjustifiable,” Aos said. “God does not want violence.”
Amid the initial confusion over the weekend, Aos had to deny reports that one of the parishes had a cat refuge and that at least 100 cats had died in the fire. It eventually emerged that there were seven cats living in the the church of Asuncion, and, at press time, five were missing.
Late Sunday, the Chilean bishops conference – long under fire for mishandling the clerical sexual abuse crisis – released a statement condemning the attacks on private property and looting, as well as the attacks on places of prayer, “sacred spaces dedicated to God and the charitable service of people.”
The bishops note that the violent groups that torched the churches “contrast with many others who have demonstrated peacefully.”
“We believe that this majority does not support or justify violent actions that cause pain to individuals and families, damaging communities that cannot live in peace in their homes or work, frightened by those who do not seek to build anything, but rather destroy everything,” the bishops said.
“In democracies we express ourselves with free vote in conscience, not under the pressure of terror and force,” the bishops argue.
Lay woman Soledad Herrera, the president of Catholic Voices Chile, told Crux Sunday the burning of the churches has produced a sense of “desolation,” but she doesn’t see a “direct attack” on Catholicism.
“Catholics have continued to work as before [the abuse crisis], tirelessly and in silence, among those who suffer and especially among those who suffer from hunger and difficulties as a result of the pandemic,” she said.
“Without forgetting the pain caused by the abuses, the churches have been one in a series of institutions that have been affected by these acts of violence,” Herrera said.
“We regret the suffering that the fires have caused to the parishioners, mainly the elderly, who have lived fundamental milestones of their lives in these churches,” she said. “We also regret the discomfort caused to all Chileans, because [the attacks] also affect the freedom, and freedom of religion, we want to promote and protect.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma