SANTIAGO: Pope Francis wraps up his Chile visit Thursday by meeting with members of the South American nation’s booming immigrant community, who are flocking to the region’s strongest and most stable economy but are increasingly the focus of political and social discontent.
After a meeting with Chile’s Mapuche indigenous in the south Wednesday, Francis is going to the northern city of Iquique, which is home to nearly two dozen migrant slums. He plans to celebrate Mass there before heading to Peru for the final leg of his two-nation trip.
Francis has long called for countries to welcome migrants and refugees fleeing war, drought or hardship — a message that often falls on deaf ears in Europe, where the migrant crisis has been a driving factor on politics for years.
Upon his arrival in Chile, Francis said the country’s future lies in its ability to listen, including “to the migrants who knock on the doors of this country in search of a better life, but also with the strength and the hope of helping to build a better life for all.”
Even though the numbers are comparatively small, Chile had the fastest annual rate of migrant growth of any country in Latin American between 2010 and 2015, according to UN and church statistics.
Most of the newcomers are Haitians, who often face language barriers that limit their job prospects. While Chile hasn’t experienced the anti-immigrant backlash seen in the US and Europe, the incoming conservative government of President Sebastian Pinera is looking to crack down.
Pinera, who previously was president in 2010-14, said during his election campaign that Chile would remain welcoming to migrants who follow the law and aim to be productive members of society.
“We want to shut the doors to drug trafficking, contraband that is often associated with it and, above all, we want people who come to Chile to respect our law,” Pinera told local ADN radio in October.
Immigration groups say they fear a big change will follow when Pinera takes power in March from President Michelle Bachelet.
On Wednesday, Francis engaged in one of his most anticipated events: celebrating Mass for Mapuche amid a spate of unprecedented violence timed to his visit. Nearly a dozen churches and three helicopters were torched recently.
In his homily in the heart of Chile’s restive Araucania region, Francis took both Mapuche radicals responsible for the violence and the government to task. He said violence must end and the government must do more than just negotiating “elegant” but ultimately meaningless agreements with the indigenous.
“You cannot assert yourselves by destroying others because this only leads to more violence and division,” he admonished. “Violence begets violence, destruction increases fragmentation and separation. Violence eventually makes the justest cause a lie.”
After the Mass, Francisca Linconao, a Mapuche leader who has been implicated in the burning deaths of a farm couple in 2013, tried to approach Francis as he passed by in his pope mobile, but police kept her away. She said she wanted to give him a letter asking him to intervene in the long-standing conflict and proclaiming her innocence.
“The pope could speak, could mediate in the Araucania region about the situation of the Mapuche who are being incarcerated,” Linconao told The Associated Press.
The Argentine pope is particularly attuned to indigenous issues and their campaigns for recognition of their land, culture, and traditions. He hopes to use his weeklong trip to Chile and Peru to put the issue on the global agenda and set the stage for a church meeting next year on the Amazon and native peoples who live there.
The outdoor Mass at the Maquehue Air Base was steeped in symbolism because of its own history: The land was taken from the Mapuche in the early 20th century and the location was also used as a detention and torture facility in the early years of Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.
Leading some 150,000 people in a moment of silent prayer, Francis said the fertile green fields and snow-capped mountains of the Mapuche heartland were blessed by God and cursed by man as the site of “grave human rights violations” during the 1973-1990 dictatorship.
“We offer this Mass for all those who suffered and died, and for those who daily bear the burden of those many injustices,” he said.
The world’s first Latin American pope knows well the conflict-ridden modern history of his home continent. He was a young Jesuit superior during neighbouring Argentina’s “dirty war,” when thousands of suspected leftists were killed, imprisoned or disappeared at the hands of the military junta.
In Chile, the government estimates 3,095 people were killed, including about 1,200 who were forcibly disappeared.
Some of them washed ashore along the river that runs through Maquehue, said Patricia Aravena, a 44-year-old secretary who said she grew up hearing stories from her parents and grandparents of atrocities committed at the base.
“My father-in-law told us that in 1973 the military entered the air base with trucks full of people and then left with them empty,” she told AP. “They would also hear shooting and would go to see bodies that were left on the riverbanks.”