TEMUCO, Chile — Pope Francis took the Chilean state and the country’s largest indigenous group to task Wednesday over their failure to forge a truly unified nation, saying the government must do more than just negotiate “elegant” agreements and radical Mapuche factions must stop violence.
Francis’ pointed homily in the heart of Chile’s restive Araucania region came hours after two more churches and three helicopters were torched — attacks blamed on Mapuche radical groups demanding the return of ancestral lands and the release of Mapuche prisoners. No arrests have been made.
The outdoor Mass at the Maquehue Air Base was steeped in symbolism because of its own history: The land was taken from the Mapuche in the early 20th century and the location was also used as a detention and torture facility in the early years of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
Leading some 150,000 people in a moment of silent prayer, Francis said the fertile green fields and snow-capped mountains of the Mapuche heartland in Chile’s southern Araucania region were both blessed by God and cursed by man, the site of “grave human rights violations” during the 1973-1990 dictatorship.
“We offer this Mass for all those who suffered and died, and for those who daily bear the burden of those many injustices,” he said.
Francis also referred to the recent violence that has flared in Araucania, Chile’s poorest region, and beyond. No one has claimed responsibility for the 11 firebombs that have damaged, or in some cases, burned churches to the ground in several parts of Chile in recent days. Investigators have found pamphlets promoting the Mapuche cause at some of the torched churches and by the helicopters set ablaze overnight.
The Argentine Jesuit pope took radical factions to task, saying violence wasn’t the answer to their grievances.
“You cannot assert yourselves by destroying others, because this only leads to more violence and division,” he admonished in his homily. “Violence begets violence, destruction increases fragmentation and separation. Violence eventually makes a most just cause into a lie.”
At the same time, he demanded the government not just negotiate “elegant” agreements with indigenous peoples, but actually implement them.
He called such accords that yield nothing a form of violence “because it frustrates hope.”
After the Mass, Francisca Linconao, a Mapuche leader who has been implicated in the burning deaths of a couple in 2013, tried to approach Francis as he passed in his popemobile, but police kept her away. She said she wanted to give him an open letter asking him to intervene in the long-standing conflict and proclaiming her innocence.
“The pope could speak, could mediate in Araucania region about the situation of the Mapuche who are being incarcerated,” Linconao told The Associated Press.
The Argentine pope is particularly attuned to indigenous issues and their campaigns for recognition of their land, culture and traditions. He hopes to use his weeklong trip to Chile and Peru to put the issue on the global agenda and set the stage for a church meeting next year on the Amazon and native peoples who live there.
The Mass was replete with Mapuche cultural references and symbolism, with traditional music and prayers sprinkled throughout. The pope uttered Mapuche greetings throughout his homily.
The world’s first Latin American pope knows well the conflict-ridden modern history of his home continent: He was a young Jesuit superior during neighbouring Argentina’s “Dirty War,” when thousands of suspected leftists were killed, imprisoned or disappeared at the hands of the military junta.
In Chile, the government estimates 3,095 people were killed, including about 1,200 who were forcibly disappeared.
Some of them washed ashore along the river that runs through Maquehue, said Patricia Aravena, a 44-year-old secretary who said she grew up hearing stories from her parents and grandparents of the atrocities committed at the base.
“My father-in-law told us that in 1973 the military entered the air base with trucks full of people and then left with them empty,” she told AP. “They would also hear shooting and would go to see bodies that were left on the riverbanks.”
Francis’ gesture of celebrating Mass on the site of some of the military’s worst atrocities recalled St. John Paul II’s famous 1987 visit to Chile during the waning years of the Pinochet regime. In one of the most poignant moments of that trip, the Polish pope delivered a speech to young people gathered in Santiago’s national stadium, which had been used as a detention and torture centre.
With the wounds of the regime still fresh, John Paul urged Chile’s youth to look forward with hope, even from a place of “pain and suffering.”
Francis repeated those words Wednesday in his Mass, which began with Mapuche natives performing a traditional horn and drum ceremony at the altar as Francis and other priests looked on.
After the service, Francis had lunch with eight Mapuche, breaking bread over a sumptuous meal of mushroom ragout, octopus carpaccio, crab claws, osso buco with saffron rice and vegetables, and flan. They were joined by a woman the Vatican described as a “victim of rural violence” as well as a descendant of the German-Swiss colonizers who clashed for centuries with the Mapuche.
Francis had raised the plight of the indigenous in his first speech on Tuesday to government authorities, urging 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 words were already reverberating among many in the Mapuche community when Francis celebrated the Mass on Wednesday.
“The recognition (of the Mapuche people) has to come from the state and not from the church,” said Daniel Antiman, a Mapuche representative.
How likely that is remains to be seen, as the conflict is one of Latin America’s longest involving indigenous peoples. Their disputes date back to the late 19th century, when the Chilean military finally defeated the Mapuche, who had ferociously resisted Spanish and other European settlers for centuries.
Mapuche groups are pushing for ownership of ancestral lands, legal recognition of their language and culture, and a stop to discrimination that leaders say often makes them police targets.
While the vast majority of Chile’s estimated 1 million citizens of Mapuche descent oppose violence, a small number rely on it to push their agenda.
In recent years dozens of churches have been targets. Outside one of the churches attacked last week, pamphlets extolling the Mapuche cause were found.
Some 4,000 police officers were deployed in Temuco, the Araucania capital, as protests were expected but largely failed to materialize.
“I think many people were afraid to come out because of everything going on,” said Karina Birchmeier, a housewife who attended the Mass with her daughter.
In recent decades, the Mapuche community has made significant strides. Some ancestral lands have been returned, though the program is controversial. University scholarships have been set aside for Mapuche young people and Mapuche foods and culture have become part of the mainstream.
Still, myriad problems persist and many Mapuche complain of discrimination.
Jackeline Martinez, a food worker who attended the Mass, said the conflict needs to be resolved in a peaceful manner.
“Burning the churches is an embarrassment,” she said. “A church isn’t to blame.”