Pope Francis steps into contentious indigenous struggle in Chile

He urged Chileans to not resort to "destructive violence."

ByPhoebe Natanson
January 17, 2018, 3:10 PM

— -- Pope Francis stepped into another thorny issue in Chile today: the plight of the country’s indigenous people.

Francis flew some 400 miles from the capital of Santiago to the city of Temuco, located deep in the country’s poorest region of Araucania, the land of the Mapuche, the largest ethnic group in Chile.

Hours before he arrived, three helicopters and two churches were torched, according to The Associated Press. Eleven churches have been firebombed in recent days, according to the AP, a reflection of the region's contentious land rights issues and the Catholic Church's waning popularity in the country.

In a nod to the centuries-long struggle indigenous people in the region have waged, Francis greeted the different indigenous people of the region: the Mapuche, the Rapanui (from Easter Island), the Aymara, the Quechua and the Atacamenos.

PHOTO: Chilean Investigative Police inspect a helicopter burned at the Arauco Forestry company in Caranilahue, Temuco, Jan. 17, 2018.
Chilean Investigative Police inspect a helicopter burned at the Arauco Forestry company in Caranilahue, Temuco, Jan. 17, 2018. Three helicopters were attacked by unidentified people who left behind pamphlets from the organization Coordinator Arauco Malleco, CAM, demanding autonomy for the indigenous Mapuche people, hours before Pope Francis celebrated a Mass in this city.
Manuel Araneda, Aton Chile via AP

He spoke of the beauty and richness of their lands, saying in their local language, "Mari, Mari," or "Good morning," and "Küme tünngün ta niemün," or “Peace be with you.”

The pontiff said the land "has a sorrow that cannot be silenced, the injustices of centuries that everyone sees taking place" and focused on the meaning of unity. He stressed the need for all to listen and respect one another and about the art of "weaving" that unity to build history.

"We need the riches that each people has to offer, and we must abandon the notion that there are higher or lower cultures," Francis said.

He urged attendees to not resort to "destructive violence."

"We have to insist that a culture of mutual esteem may not be based on acts of violence and destruction that end up taking human lives," Francis said. "You cannot assert yourself by destroying others, because this only leads to more violence and division. Violence begets violence, destruction increases fragmentation and separation. Violence eventually makes a most just cause into a lie."

PHOTO: Pope Francis arrives to lead a mass at the Maquehue Temuco Air Force base in Chile, Jan. 17, 2018.
Pope Francis arrives to lead a mass at the Maquehue Temuco Air Force base in Chile, Jan. 17, 2018.
Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

The pope arrived there earlier in the day from Santiago. Looking relaxed, he was driven in his motorcade straight to an open area at a now-unused airport area where about 150,000 people had gathered for Mass. The site is also known as a former detention center used during Chile’s violent dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. Crowds chanted loudly to the welcome song, "Francisco amigo!"

A group of indigenous people dressed in colorful, traditional costumes knelt before the altar while some played traditional horn and drum instruments and waved leafy branches.

PHOTO: Nuns wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at Maquehue airport in Temuco, Chile, where he will celebrate an open-air mass, Jan. 17, 2018.
Nuns wait for the arrival of Pope Francis at Maquehue airport in Temuco, Chile, where he will celebrate an open-air mass, Jan. 17, 2018.
Claudio Reyes/AFP/Getty Images

Some improvements have been made to the indigenous people's situation, but the Mapuche people feel still feel targeted and discriminated against for defending their rights.

Protests against the repeated attempts to take their land from them and the continued destruction of their natural environment have continued. Some of these protests have turned violent: evangelical and Catholic churches have been burned in protest, and at least 11 firebombs have damaged or razed churches to the ground in recent days.

Speaking from the Vatican before his trip, the pope said he wanted to bring Chile a message "of hope, that hearts may be opened to peace, justice and dialogue."

PHOTO: Pope Francis arrives for Holy mass at Maquehue aiport, Maquehue, Chile, Jan. 17, 2018.
Pope Francis arrives for Holy mass at Maquehue aiport, Maquehue, Chile, Jan. 17, 2018.
Luca Zennaro/EPA

He has made a point on his trips to visit the countries’ disadvantaged regions to speak of indigenous rights and environmental issues. The pope is expected to address similar concerns when he travels to Puerto Maldonado, in the Peruvian Amazon, on Friday.

After Mass today, the pope had a private lunch with the Bishop Hector Eduardo Vargas Bastidas, eight Mapuche people from various communities, a victim of rural violence, a local of Swiss-German heritage and a recent immigrant from Haiti. He was expected to return to Santiago this afternoon for a meeting with young people.

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