SANTIAGO President Michelle Bachelet has asked Chileans to receive Pope Francis in a ‘‘climate of respect’’, after three Catholic churches were firebombed and a note left at the scene threatening the pontiff.
In the overnight attacks in Santiago, the capital and largest city, where the pope will arrive tomorrow, the churches were hit with firebombs and then sprayed with accelerant. At one, the doors were burned before firefighters extinguished the blaze.
‘‘The next bombs will be in your cassock,’’ read pamphlets found outside one of the churches.
Later in the day, police found barrels of flammable liquid at two other churches that had not been ignited. They were handled by bomb squads without incident.
The pamphlets also extolled the cause of the Mapuche indigenous people, who are pushing for a return of ancestral lands and other rights. Francis will celebrate Mass and meet with Mapuches in the southern city of Temuco on Thursday.
After the previously scheduled security meeting, Bachelet said yesterday the Andean nation of 17 million was prepared for the first papal visit since St John Paul II came in 1987. ‘‘I also want to invite you all to experience this visit in a climate of respect, solidarity and happiness,’’ she said.
There were no immediate arrests over the firebombings, and authorities downplayed their significance, with Interior Ministry official Mahmud Aleuy calling the damage ‘‘minor’’.
Chilean police did not immediately respond to queries about whether new security measures would be taken after the attacks.
Earlier this week police said 18,000 officers would be deployed during Francis’s visits to Santiago, Temuco and the northern city of Iquique. Police will also have helicopters on hand and will monitor events with drones.
It was unclear who might have been behind yesterday’s attacks.
A small minority of Mapuches have used violence to further their cause, and in recent years churches have been targeted. Chile also has a handful of anarchist groups that periodically attack property and clash with police during protests.
The pamphlet that threatened the pope mentioned the Mapuche cause and called for the liberation of ‘‘all political prisoners in the world’’. GETTY IMAGES
Hugo Alcaman, president of ENAMA, a Mapuche group that encourages local businesses and advocates social change, condemned the attacks. ‘‘We reject all types of violence, which we don’t think is intelligent or effective,’’ he said.
Francis’s visit to Chile and Peru aims to highlight immigration, the suffering of indigenous peoples and protecting the Amazon rainforest. However, sex abuse in the Chilean church and political instability in Peru have become central themes as his arrival nears.
The Vatican agreed to the Chile visit knowing that the local church has lost much of the moral authority it earned during the Pinochet dictatorship, when bishops spoke out against human rights abuses.
Today, the Catholic Church in Chile has been largely marginalised, criticised as out of touch with today’s secular youth and discredited by its botched handling of a notorious paedophile priest.
In Peru, Francis had hoped to highlight the need to protect the vast Amazon and its native peoples. But he now has to contend with a president who only narrowly escaped impeachment a few weeks ago, sparked massive protests by issuing a politically charged pardon and is embroiled in a continentwide corruption scandal.
Francis, whose defence of refugees and migrants is well known, is expected to address Chile’s growing immigrant community when he travels on Friday to Iquique, home to nearly two dozen migrant slums. Even though its numbers are compara- AP tively small, Chile had the fastest annual rate of migrant growth of any country in Latin American in 2010-15, according to United Nations and church statistics. Most of the newcomers are Haitians.
The Catholic Church in Chile has yet to recover its credibility following the scandal over the Rev Fernando Karadima, a charismatic preacher who had a huge following in Santiago and was responsible for training hundreds of priests and five bishops. The Vatican in 2011 sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of ‘‘penance and prayer’’ after confirming what his victims had been saying for years but what Chile’s Catholic leadership refused to believe: that Karadima had sexually abused them.
Francis reopened the wounds of the scandal when in 2015 he named one of Karadima’s proteges as bishop of the southern diocese of Osorno. Karadima’s victims say Bishop Juan Barros knew about the abuse but did nothing, a charge Barros denies. Osorno dissidents are planning protests in Santiago to coincide with Francis’s arrival. AP
Chilean Deputy Interior Secretary Aleuy Mahmud and his staff leave the Santa Isabel de Hungria Catholic Church in Santiago yesterday after inspecting the damage from a firebomb attack. Vandals firebombed three churches in the Chilean capital ahead of a visit by Pope Francis.
Sex abuse in the Catholic Church has become a central theme as Pope Francis’s arrival nears.