Pope Francis on Monday begins a weeklong visit to Chile and Peru that is expected to highlight the plight of the continent’s indigenous peoples, the decimation of the Amazon rainforests and the struggles of immigrants and the poor.
The trip will mark the Argentine pope’s fourth visit to South America, following his trip to Colombia in September.
A series of gasoline firebomb attacks on Roman Catholic churches in Chile before the pope’s arrival has dramatized tensions in the church here, which has been riven by cases of clergy sexual abuse.
No one was injured in the attacks overnight Friday on three churches in the capital, and damage was minimal from the crude strikes with gasoline-filled bottles. But following the incidents, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called on Chileans to receive the pope in a “climate of respect.”
A fourth attack occurred early Sunday at a church in Melipilla, outside Santiago.
It was not clear who was behind the strikes, and authorities downplayed the significance, but the firebombings were clearly timed to coincide with the pope’s visit.
“The next bombs will be in your cassock,” threatened pamphlets found outside one of the targeted churches.
The pamphlets also championed the cause of Chile’s Mapuche indigenous group, which has been engaged in a battle for the return of ancestral territories and for other rights.
On Wednesday, the pontiff is slated to travel to the central city of Temuco to celebrate Mass and meet with Mapuche representatives. Several Mapuche leaders condemned the firebombings and rejected violence as a means of social change, a sentiment echoed by other Chilean officials.
“There is no place for violence in a democracy,” said Claudio Orrego, regional governor of the Santiago area.
Also in Chile, victims of clergy sexual abuse have been pushing for a meeting with the pope during his visit here, though no such meeting had been formally scheduled.
Many Catholics here were outraged at the pope’s appointment in 2015 of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid to head the diocese of Osorno, about 510 miles south of the capital. Barros has denied covering up allegations of abuse by a prominent Santiago priest, Father Fernando Karadima, who was sentenced by the Vatican in 2011 to a life of prayer and penance for sexual abuse of children and adults.
The pope is scheduled to be in Chile from Monday to Wednesday before heading to Peru for the second leg of his journey. Massive crowds are expected for a number of outdoor celebrations. Officials in both countries said security was being beefed up before the papal visit.
Emotions were running high in advance of the visit to the two largely Catholic nations. Images of the pope and signs welcoming him were already beginning to line the streets of cities he is planning to visit.
While Francis, a native of Buenos Aires of Italian ancestry, has never visited his Argentine homeland as pope, many Argentines are making the trip to neighboring Chile to pay homage to their compatriot, the first pope from the Americas.
The pope is scheduled to meet with the presidents of both countries — Bachelet in Chile and Pedro Pablo Kuczynski in Peru — along with hosting bishops, priests and representatives of the youth. He is also slated to meet with female prisoners at a jail in Santiago.
Among other stops in Peru, Francis is scheduled to meet with Amazonian indigenous representatives in the city of Puerto Maldonado, in Peru’s southeastern Madre de Dios region, a gateway to the Peruvian Amazon.
Puerto Maldonado is widely seen as a near-lawless center of illicit gold mining that has ravaged the environment, pushed indigenous people from their lands and resulted in forced labor and trafficking of women and girls for prostitution.
The Vatican will be hosting a Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazon region in October 2019.
Pope Francis’ previous visit to South America — his four-day trip to Colombia in September — was by all accounts highly successful. Huge crowds turned out to see the pontiff, capped by the 1.1 million who attended a Mass on the runways of Medellin’s downtown airport.
At the top of his list of sermon topics was reconciliation, a sensitive topic in the aftermath of a peace deal signed in 2016 by the Colombian government and FARC rebels that ended a half century of conflict.
But the pope largely steered clear of inserting himself into what may be the continent’s biggest crisis, the civil unrest in Venezuela. Although he met during his Colombian trip with five Venezuelan bishops, including Caracas Archbishop Jorge Urosa, who have been sharply critical of President Nicolas Maduro, the pope subsequently limited himself to calls for dialogue and stability.
The theme of immigration is also expected to be prominent during the pope’s swing through South America. Both Chile and Peru have seen influxes of Venezuelans and others fleeing economic and political turmoil.
Ahead of his departure for South America, Francis used his regular Sunday service in St. Peter’s Square to make an impassioned plea for immigrants.
Being afraid of migration is a natural human reaction and not a sin, the pope said after the Sunday Angelus and speaking in honor of the international day of migrants and refugees.
“The sin,” he said, “is to allow these fears to determine our responses, to limit our choices, to compromise respect and generosity, to feed hostility and rejection.”
He said it was incumbent on residents in countries receiving immigrants and refugees to welcome them, and incumbent on the new arrivals to learn and respect local laws and customs.
Francis has consistently voiced support for the poor and for those fleeing violence and turmoil — and has assailed what he calls a “throwaway culture” that, he says, costs lives and damages the environment. He openly criticized President Trump’s vow to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, saying those who speak of walls and not bridges are not true Christians. That brought an angry rebuke from Trump.
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano over the weekend criticized Trump’s latest characterization of countries in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean as “particularly harsh and offensive.”
McDonnell reported from Santiago, Wilkinson from Washington and special correspondent Kraul from Bogota, Colombia. Special correspondents Jorge Poblete in Santiago, Chile, and Adriana Leon in Lima, Peru, contributed to this report.