Fire scorches Christ statue in Peru as pope visit nears
Arson initially feared, but police blame short in wiring for lights
LIMA, Peru — A giant Christ statue in Peru’s capital that was donated by a construction company at the center of Latin America’s largest corruption scandal was damaged by fire Saturday, five days before Pope Francis’ scheduled arrival in the South American nation.
Peruvians awoke to find nearly the entire back of the statue, perched on a barren desert bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, charred black.
A spokesperson with Peru’s firefighting corps told RPP Noticias that two dozen firefighters responded to the blaze and that an early working theory was that the Christ of the Pa
cific was purposely set aflame. However, police later told the state news agency Andina that electrical cables for the statue’s lighting had shortcircuited because of humidity, sparking the blaze.
“Police security for the holy father’s visit is assured,” Col. Manuel Rivera said.
In Chile, where the pope arrives Monday, authorities are on guard after several Roman Catholic churches in the capital, Santiago, were firebombed and pamphlets left at one of the churches threatened the pontiff: “The next bombs will be in your cassock.”
The 69-foot statue in Peru was donated by the Brazilian company Odebrecht in 2011, and for many Peruvians it has become a sour reminder of the company’s illegal maneuverings to court and bribe high-ranking officials in exchange for lucrative public works contracts.
In January 2017, vandals covered the statue in messages such as “Out of the country, Odebrecht.”
Two former Peruvian presidents are accused of accepting money from Odebrecht, and current President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski narrowly escaped impeachment in December over his ties to the company. Opposition lawmakers uncovered documents showing that Kuczynski’s private consulting firm received $782,000 from Odebrecht more than a decade ago, when he was a government minister.
Kuczynski has denied knowing anything about the payments, saying he recused himself from all consulting business while in the position.
The pope has hoped to highlight the need to protect the Amazon rainforest during his visit, but Peruvians will be paying close attention to whether he addresses corruption. It’s an issue close to his heart, and he has called graft more insidious than sin and a plague that hurts the poorest the most.
The statue cost about $1 million, Odebrecht said in 2011.
Alan García, whose second stint as Peru’s president ran from 2006 to 2011, is under preliminary investigation into whether he took Odebrecht bribes. He has said he contributed about $30,000 of his own money for the statue’s construction.
“I want it to be a figure that blesses Peru,” García said at the time.
Cyclists looked toward the Christ of the Pacific statue in Lima after the back of the figure was blackened by fire on Saturday.