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Pope denounces violence in visit to restive region of Chile

Pope Francis waves from the popemobile at Maquehue airport in Temuco, 800 km south of Santiago, where he will celebrate an open-air mass on January 17, 2018. Pope Francis arrived in the heartland of the Mapuche, Chile’s largest indigenous group, which complains of discrimination and abuse and is seeking the return of ancestral lands now in private hands. The visiting Pontiff will pay a short visit to Temuco to make direct contact with Mapuche leaders after presiding over a huge open air mass./ AFP PHOTO / Vincenzo PINTO

Pope Francis denounced the use of violence in the struggle for indigenous rights Wednesday, celebrating mass in a restive region of Chile hours after assailants firebombed churches and other targets.

The Argentine-born pontiff was shining the spotlight on the simmering conflict between the state and the Mapuche people, who centuries ago controlled vast areas of Chile but have since been marginalized.

“You cannot assert yourself by destroying others, because this only leads to more violence and division,” the pope said, speaking before thousands of faithful at an airfield in Temuco, the capital of the southern Araucania region.

“Violence begets violence, destruction increases fragmentation and separation. Violence eventually makes a most just cause into a lie,” the pope warned.

“That is why we say ‘no to destructive violence’ in either of its two forms.”

Unidentified assailants hurled incendiary devices at three Catholic churches and an evangelical Christian church in pre-dawn attacks Wednesday in the Araucania region.

Five other churches had previously been hit by arsonists in Chile’s capital Santiago.

A forestry company helicopter also was torched during the night, and a policeman was shot and wounded by a group of hooded assailants, authorities said.

The aim was to “cause disorder or disturbance of the public order” during the pope’s visit to Temuco, said Chilean police chief Bruno Villalobos.

– Simmering conflict –
At the pope’s first stop in Santiago, protests over the church’s handling of clergy abuse dominated the visit, his first to Chile as the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

In Temuco, however, the papal spotlight turned to the Mapuche, who today account for seven percent of Chile’s population, but hold only five percent of their ancestral lands.

Francis was scheduled to meet after the mass with a group of indigenous people whose identities have not yet been revealed by organizers, before returning to Santiago, where he will meet with youths at the Maipu shrine and visit a Catholic university.

Thousands waited from the early hours of Wednesday at the Maquehue airfield to hear the pope, who dedicated the mass to the victims of human rights abuses during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Pope Francis said he chose to celebrate mass at the airfield because of its history as a detention center during the military regime.

“This celebration we offer for all who suffered and died and for those who each day carry on their backs the weight of so many injustices,” he said.

On Thursday, he will visit the northern coastal city of Iquique, an immigration hotspot, before proceeding to Peru.

– Sexual abuse –
On Tuesday in Santiago, the pope conferred alone with a small group of victims of sexual abuse by priests in Chile, after he publicly asked for forgiveness and riot police broke up a protest near the first public mass of his South American visit.

During the “strictly private” meeting at the Vatican embassy in the capital, the victims “spoke of their suffering to Pope Francis, who listened to them and prayed and cried with them,” the Vatican said.

Earlier, the 81-year-old pontiff said: “I cannot begin to express the pain and shame that I feel over the irreparable harm caused to children by some ministers of the church,” vowing to commit to ensure the abuses would never happen again.

Francis made those comments during a visit to President Michelle Bachelet’s official Moneda Palace residence, drawing applause from pilgrims watching on giant screens in a park where he later celebrated an open-air mass for some 400,000 people.

– ‘Pedophile accomplices’ –
But the pope did not receive a universal welcome, with scuffles breaking out between riot police and demonstrators near O’Higgins Park.

Police used armored vehicles to fire water cannons at the demonstrators, bundling some of them into vans. More than 50 people were arrested, authorities said.

His visit was preceded by the release of a report outlining the depth of sexual abuse in the local church, and his appointment of a bishop who many Chileans accuse of covering up the country’s most prominent sex abuse scandal.

The US-based NGO Bishop Accountability said that almost 80 Roman Catholic clergy members had been accused of sexually abusing children in Chile since 2000.

For some victims, the pope’s request for forgiveness did not go far enough.

“We need concrete actions that the pope has not taken with the Chilean church,” said Juan Carlos Claret, spokesman for a lay association in the southern city of Osorno.

Claret’s group is demanding Francis remove Osorno bishop Juan Barros, whom he appointed in 2015, despite Barros’s ties to a disgraced pedophile priest Fernando Karadima.

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