Christians in central Chile have been left shocked and stunned by the latest arson attack on a church.
At around midnight last Saturday (4th March), eight masked and armed men arrived at the chapel of Our Lady of the Rays, in the village of California, Araucanía and set it alight.
Magdalena Lira, national director of Aid to the Church in Need (Chile), said: “The neighbours came out and watched in dismay as the building was reduced to ashes. They are very upset, they don’t understand the motives for the attack.”
According to the Chilean press, the attackers left pamphlets warning about future violent actions: “Every bullet you fire will be returned. Temucuicui resists.”
Temucuicui is a region in central Chile consisting of indigenous Mapuche communities.
A message claiming responsibility for the attack was signed RMM, which stands for the Malleco Mapuche Resistance, a guerrilla group that claims to defend the rights of the Mapuche people and has carried out other attacks in the past.
Ms Lira said: “The flames consumed the building in a matter of minutes, leaving the community, which is mostly made up of Mapuche families, without a place of worship for their activities.
“The small chapel had been built in 1952 by local villagers, hence the pain felt by residents as they watched it burn to the ground.
“The police only found remains of the metal roof, and the occasional ribbon that survived the fire, but there is little left to identify it as a religious building”.
She added: “By a small miracle a small plaster image of Mary, which for a long time had been kept in a nearby cave, was found intact”.
Church attacks are on the rise in Chile, and the incident at the chapel is only the latest in a series of attacks on Christian sites in the country.
According to ACN’s 2021 Religious Freedom in the World report, 59 churches were damaged or vandalised across Chile between October 2019 and October 2020, six of these were Protestant, and 53 were Catholic.
Ms Lira said: “Many of these attacks occurred in October 2019, because of the civil unrest that took place in Chile at that time, but even before that there had been several attacks in the Araucanía area, linked to subversive groups that claim to defend the Mapuche, the indigenous people of this region.
“These are minority groups of violent radicals that do not represent the majority of the Mapuche”.
She added: “Some of these small groups, who resort to violence to call for land restitution, see Christianity as a symbol of colonisation, even though that is not the case.
“Many studies show that the majority of the Mapuche identify as Christian. They have a right to be respected in their faith and not have their religious freedom threatened.
“Many of these chapels were built with great effort by the communities, such as this one that was just burned.
“Can you imagine the pain and the helplessness of the community as they watched the fire destroy something that they built and cared for with such devotion?
“The church is not just walls, it holds the memory of a community that has lived its religious life around it”.