Seven hours’ drive south of Chile’s capital, Santiago, in the Araucanía region, not less than 27 churches have been burnt down in the past couple of years by a radical indigenous group, Weichan Auka Mapu.

The attackers leave behind messages spelling out the demands of the Mapuches, an ancestral tribe whose land was taken from them during Chile’s colonisation by Spanish Catholics. A high percentage of Mapuches now identify as Christian: 55% Catholic, 32% Protestant. But for some others, Christians are still seen as invaders.

“I was inside with my children… They broke the windows and entered, firing their guns into the air, and then they threw us out… They came after us with large guns, machine guns, and they were wearing masks. They told us to leave or they would set us on fire as well – the children and all.”

Of the 20 churches burnt down between 2015 and 2016, 12 were Catholic, eight Protestant. In 2017, a further seven have been torched. These churches also served as schools, meeting places and shelters for those fleeing natural disasters. Many belonged to the poorest sectors of the poorest region in Chile, and were attended by Mapuches themselves.

The leader of an Assemblies of God church burnt down in July recalls the moment his attractive wooden church, built 15 years ago using money church members had raised, was reduced to ashes.

Juan Mella
Juan Mella, president of the local Pastors’ Council

Juan Mella, who is also head of the local Pastors’ Council, said the event demonstrated an intolerance among the Mapuches.

“Each human being can have their own views with regard to faith, spirituality. We have never imposed our faith, but we have shared it with everyone because the Lord sent us to every nation, every tribe,” he said.

Abelino Apeleo, an Anglican bishop in Araucanía and also an ethnic Mapuche, said the primary issue is ignorance on the part of some of his fellow Mapuches.

“One sector of the Mapuche people – those with a more radical, violent attitude – blame the Church for creating the problems of the Mapuches,” he said. “This is totally wrong. And of course we cannot support violence as a response.”

The incident that has received the most publicity took place in June 2016, when masked men invaded a Sunday service at La Iglesia del Señor in Padre Las Casas, a city just south of the regional capital, Temuco. It has become known as the “Case of the Burnt Church”, and is the only case so far that has led to arrests.

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