CHILE: A series of arson attacks on Catholic and Protestant churches and chapels

In recent years, Araucanía – a region in the south of Chile – has been the focus of violent attacks against the people. Hundreds of people have been victims of the so-called “Mapuche conflict” (the Mapuche are an indigenous Indian people in southern Chile). Violent arson attacks have been attributed to extremist groups, who claim to be defending a territory that once belonged to them.

Since the year 2014 this threat has extended to include chapels and churches in the region. A total of 15 churches, 12 Catholic ones and three evangelical ones, have been burnt down – no fewer than 11 of them in this year, 2016. These are in fact centres of rural Christian communities which provide an enormous level of service to the local people.

One of the most recent attacks was on the diocesan major seminary of San Fidel, which belongs to the diocese of Villarrica. In May 2014 this seminary was occupied by a group of Mapuche activists, who were finally only evicted on 8 March of this year. Founded in 1925, this seminary has seen the formation of 350 priests, and it had been hoped that the Church could house 60 seminarians there, once the diocese had been able to recover the four buildings that had been occupied. Now, however, two of the three floors of the central building, including the chapel, have been completely destroyed by the fire.

According to the office of religious affairs (ONAR), some 55% of the Mapuche people belong to the Catholic Church, and a further 37% are evangelical Christians. They are an overwhelmingly peaceful community, who have also been victims of these violent attacks, carried out supposedly in their name.

Archbishop Francisco Javier Stegmeier of Villarrica spoke to Aid to the Church in Need about the situation faced by Christians in this region.

“These Christian faithful, who have been attacked with such cruelty on account of their faith, are reacting in a manner that is coherent with this same faith, as authentic witnesses to Christ”, he said.

What is the feeling among the Christian faithful in the face of these attacks? How have they been affected?

Those who have been directly affected by the arson attacks on their churches are experiencing feelings of sadness, dismay and impotence. They are victims of the irrationality and injustice of criminal acts perpetrated by individuals and groups who are foreign to the way of thinking of those people who live in our region. All the communities which have now seen the fruit of years of hard work burnt down in a matter of minutes are made up of Christians who are for the most part themselves Mapuche and poor. Yet despite that, these faithful Christians, so cruelly attacked in their faith, are reacting in accordance with this same faith, as authentic witnesses of Christ. Up to this moment I have never heard from any one of them any expression of hatred or vengeance against those who have committed these acts. Their only desire is for reconciliation and forgiveness and the search for a fresh encounter in the spirit of Christian fraternity.

What is the response of the Church in the face of these acts of violence?

The Church must always respond in trusting prayer to the Lord, praying for the victims of the attacks and also for those who have committed them. As Christians, we must love all people, including our enemies and those who hurt and harm us. Following the example and the command of Jesus Christ, we must forgive any and every type of offence, and as often as necessary. We know that the only complete and definitive response to violence and hatred is our personal and social conversion to Christ, the Prince of peace and reconciliator of men to God and with one another. The Church, in proclaiming Jesus Christ, desires only that the members of society should seek paths of peace.

Can you see any solution to this problem?

The problem affecting our region is a complex and longstanding one. For the same reason the solution will have to be a profound and serious one, rooted in truth and justice and involving the participation of all parties, according to the degree to which it concerns them. The Mapuche people have suffered injustices, and there is a need to repair this damage. There have to be government policies that are realistic and efficient in leading to this end. Society as a whole needs to recognise the Mapuche people in their own specific identity, according a dignity to their culture and accepting an intercultural dimension as the expression of a diversity that does not divide us but rather mutually enriches us. The solution has to come about in the context of participation and communion. In this respect, the violent groups are not contributing to a solution but instead are part of the problem. Violence will engender more violence and one can never make good an injustice through more injustice. The solution necessarily requires goodwill on the part of all parties, the sincere desire to forgive and seek reconciliation in truth, justice and love.

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