When it comes to papal travel, more often than not, the news lies in the “what” of the trip: what message the pope conveys to give to a particular country or even a continent once he gets there.
Other times, however, the news is in the “where” the pope is going, meaning it comes across loud and clear well before he actually arrives.
In the case of Pope Francis, there have been several trips in which the mere fact that he made them were all that needed saying: His first-ever trip to the Italian island of Lampedusa, for instance, in many ways the gateway to Europe for scores of migrants trying to reach the continent by sea, spoke volumes.
Similarly, when Pope Francis decided to visit the Mexican border with the United States in early 2016 to pray before a spot where immigrants have died trying to make the crossing, it didn’t require much gloss.
Next January, when he visits Latin America for the sixth time, his trip will unfold on multiple levels. He’s scheduled to be in Chile from January 15-18, and then in neighboring Peru January 18-21.
In Chile, President Michelle Bachellet and Pope Francis may have many things to clash over — from abortion and gay marriage, both of which she’s pushing to legalize, to the assignment of an embattled bishop linked to child sexual abuse to a southern diocese, who’s openly opposed by forces in the Church and even several members of her cabinet.
However, few destinations along the way will speak louder than his stop in the La Araucanía region in southern Chile. Here, he’ll visit the region’s largest city, Temuco, where the Mapuche, an indigenous community, makes up 23 percent of the population.
Though typically far from the spotlight of the international media, the region has long been afflicted by a historic land conflict being fought by the Mapuche — who, despite long having had the support of the Catholic Church, have resorted to violence against the Church to make their point.
In an attempt to raise awareness of their plight, for instance, in April 2016 they burnt down a church. Those responsible left a sign saying: “Every church will be burnt down. Leave! Freedom to the Mapuche political prisoners.”
In the early months of last year, more than a dozen Catholic churches and two Protestant ones were burned by indigenous groups. Although they were condemned by the majority of the Mapuche community, the attacks have continued, although at a slower pace.
To date, the number of burned churches is at least 17, plus a seminary. The latest was an Evangelical church, which was sprayed with benzene and then set on fire earlier this year.
Most observers believe the attacks against churches, parishes and seminaries likely will continue, despite the fact that 70 percent of the Mapuche community is Catholic.
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in southern Chile has long tried to build bridges of dialogue, largely siding with the grievances of the country’s indigenous population, which amounts to 12 percent of Chile’s 17.6 million citizens.
Pope Francis has been made aware of this conflict by the Chilean bishops, who visited him last February, but before then, many players have reached out to history’s first pope from the global south to ask for his help and keep him in the loop.
For instance, last year the local business community sent a letter to the Vatican detailing the rising violence, saying that hundreds of small landowners and other citizens have suffered incendiary attacks, been shot at, threatened, and even killed.
“We hope this information helps you to know the pain of a country and of Chileans who suffer because our faith is under attack by terrorism, which respects no values or religion, threatening freedom of worship,” the letter concludes.
The conflict is highly complex, dating back to the 1500s when Chile was first colonized by the Spanish crown. Back then, the Mapuche formed a resistance against the Spaniards, refusing to give up their territories.
Jesuit Father Fernando Montes, former rector of Chile’s Alberto Hurtado University, told Crux that the Spaniards found a “ferocious” resistance from the Mapuche starting from their arrival to the country, back in 1536. The resistance of the indigenous Chileans was such that they became a “headache” to the crown.
However, the radicalization seen today began in 2013, when Mapuche people started attacking plantations, trucks transporting goods, and individuals.
Yet Pope Francis, history’s first Jesuit pope, might be able to forge a unique bond with those involved in the controversy today: Five decades after the Spaniards disembarked in Chile, the Jesuit missionaries arrived. According to Montes, they made the evangelization of the Mapuche a priority, learning the local language, mapudungun. becoming the “great defenders,” and even introducing a dose of syncretism in their approach.
When the pope’s trip was announced, Bishop Héctor Vargas, of Temuco, expressed hope in Francis’s visit to the region, saying that the community today is “fractured.”
Among those leading the Mapuche community, some share that hope. For instance, the president of the Association of Municipalities with Mapuche Mayors, Juan Carlos Reinao, said that they hope the pope will male an appeal to the Chilean state for there to “finally be political will to pay the debt with the Mapuche people, since it’s a moral duty to be able to advance in dialogue and understanding.”
However, others have little hope, and set many demands for the visit. Such is the case of the Council of Every Land (Consejo de Todas las Tierras). Through a statement signed by Aucán Huilcamán, they said that on July 19 they’ll have a meeting to prepare a report for the pope.
He was critical of Vargas’s role in the group that is counseling Bachelet on the issue, saying that the document produced so far has tried to falsify the history of the Araucanía region and the Mapuche.
Huilcamán also called on the pope to ratify the commitment made by St. John Paul II, who apologized to the indigenous peoples in America. He said Francis has failed to ratify that apology, or “plan a compensation for the crime against humanity committed against the Mapuche people and a compensation for the territorial deprivation.”
Bishop Fernado Ramos, auxiliary of Santiago and Secretary General of the Chilean bishops’ conference said on the day Francis’s visit to the country was announced that the pope himself chose each city: Beyond the semi-obligatory visit to the capital, there’s Iquique, for the devotion to Our Lady of La Tirana and the migrant situation, and Temuco to “feel and be close to the situation.”
Ramos acknowledged that this is, in fact the region of greater tension in Chile: “He wants to give a word of light, support and closeness to those who are in La Araucanía. We hope that all those who constitute that area will [in the meantime] continue to dialogue.”