ROSARIO, Argentina – As Chile reels from protest and tumult fueled by a push to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era constitution, the Catholic Church appears caught in the middle, with two churches being torched over the weekend while onlookers cheered, part of a broader pattern of street violence.
At least five people have been arrested for setting one of those churches ablaze, with one detained inside the church and four outside. Twitter videos show protesters entering the back of the church, removing religious figures and other objects that were either destroyed or used to erect barricades.
The violence came as part of broad national demonstrations ahead of a referendum next Sunday to decide whether, and how, a new constitution will be drafted to replace the one adopted during Augusto Pinochet’s notorious military dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. The spark for the movement was a modest increase last year of 30 pesos, the equivalent at the time of 4 U.S. cents, in the cost of a subway card, but the protests have since morphed into a broad critique of the country’s economic model and high cost of living and culminated in the press for a new constitution.
Observers say it’s unclear why the two churches in Santiago, the national capital – the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and the parish of the Carabineros, Santiago’s police force – were targeted. Some cite popular anger over Chile’s massive clerical sexual abuse scandals, others say it’s a broader rage against all national institutions.
Some believe the churches are mostly targets of opportunity, and still others suggest it’s actually the police and security forces fomenting the violence, helping to explain why one of the churches burned was the police parish.
Last but not least, several news outlets speak of “sports hooligans” and organized crime hiding behind the protests to reduce the economic gap in order to perpetrate attacks against key institutions, including police precincts.
Whatever the cause, Catholic leaders in Chile have condemned not just the church attacks but the resort to violence amid tensions over the constitutional referendum.
“Violence is bad, and whoever sows violence reaps destruction, pain and death,” said Archbishop Celestino Aos, of Santiago, on Sunday, hours after the videos showcasing the violent scenes of a church spire falling consumed by flames became viral on social media.
“Let us never justify any violence,” he added in a statement.
Tens of thousands gathered in the central square of Santiago, the country’s capital, to mark the anniversary of what the country has dubbed “18O,” for Oct. 18, the date the protests broke out last year, eventually leaving more than 30 dead and thousands injured.
In broad strokes, opinion in Chile appears polarized between progressives who see a new constitution as a path to a more just social order, and conservatives who believe the existing document brought stability to Chile at a time of chaos.