CASE STUDIES |CHILE: THE BURNING OF THE CHURCHES
On 18th October 2020, two churches were looted and burned in Santiago – the landmark St. Francis Borja Church, and the Church of the Asunción. A group of hooded protestors shouted, “Let it fall, let it fall”, while the dome of the Asunción Church, known as the “parish of the artists”, was consumed by fire.
The attacks on the historic churches occurred on the first anniversary of widespread anti-government protests. Known as Estallido Social (or Social Outbreak), the demonstrations erupted initially on 7th October 2019 when students opposed an increase in Metro Santiago subway fares. The protests, however, soon developed to encompass a broader critique of social and economic arrangements. At their height, more than one million people took to the streets.
Although initially peaceful, the demonstrations degenerated into violence, with riots and widespread acts of vandalism targeting government infrastructure, notably the destruction of Metro Santiago subway stations. There were 30 deaths and over 3,000 people were injured in the unrest. On 19th October 2019, Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera announced a state of emergency and deployed the military throughout the capital.
The initial social discontent lasted for over three months, later diminishing to sporadic protests across Chile. It was during these demonstrations, between October 2019 and October 2020, that looting and the destruction of churches were reported. In total 59 churches, 53 Catholic and six Evangelical, were vandalised in eight cities across the country.
The violence included arson, looting, desecration of the Blessed Sacrament, disruption of religious services and damage to church doors and gates. There were incidents in which church pews and religious statues were used to build barricades and stones were thrown through stained-glass windows.
Although the Chilean authorities condemned the acts, despite Church appeals for an investigation – in some cases the perpetrators were known – a comprehensive official inquiry has not been opened.
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