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'Without Any Respect for God': Chilean Churches Looted as Violence Over Economic Conditions Continues

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Catholic bishops in Chile are denouncing the looting and arson of churches there, saying the violent attacks are "without any respect for God or for those who believe in Him..."   

Peaceful anti-government demonstrations in Chile began last month triggered by an increase in subway fares, with students jumping turnstiles in protest.  But the protests quickly turned violent in some parts of Chile with masked protesters throwing rocks, committing arson, and looting, Time Magazine reports. At least 20 people have died, and the Chilean Red Cross estimates nearly 2,500 have been injured from the violence. The violent upheaval forced Chile to cancel two international summits that were scheduled to meet there.

Last week, looters turned their rage on churches.  In Santiago, an Associated Press photographer witnessed people dragging church pews, statues of Jesus and other religious iconography from La Asuncion church onto the street and setting them on fire in a flaming barricade before they clashed with police.  

The Catholic News Agency (CNA) reports in the city of Talca, some 150 miles south of Santiago, attackers forced open the doors of the Mary Help of Christians shrine, destroyed religious images and then carried them into the streets along with the church's pews to set them on fire and erect barricades.  In Viña del Mar, northeast of Valparaiso, a mob attacked the parish there, pulling out statues from their glass enclosures and destroying them. They also destroyed some stained glass windows, sprayed graffiti, and tried to enter the church.  In recent days, churches in Valparaiso and Punta Arenas also have been attacked, according to CNA.

In their statement, the Chilean bishops expressed their solidarity with the legitimate claims of injustice among the people, but said, that "temples and other places of worship are sacred".  They go on to say,  "The violent protesters only prevent us from looking with due attention to the just claims of the majority of the Chilean people who yearn for real and peaceful solutions … the people are not only tired of injustice, but also of violence, and the great majority hope for dialogue with respect to the reconstruction of the social fabric."

Chile has been the "good news story" of South America with a stable economy.  According to Time, the World Bank describes the country as "one of Latin America's fastest-growing economies in recent decades." But Chile, in the group of 35 wealthiest nations, is rated the worst for the disparity of incomes. 

The protesters are demanding significant change to living standards, health care, and education.

According to the AP, many Chileans talk of waiting a year for an appointment with a medical specialist, or of families receiving calls to finally set up appointments for loved ones who died months earlier waiting for that call. 

Chilean president Sebastián Piñera has taken steps for reform, including an increase in the minimum wage and shoring up pensions.  The subway fare increase was dumped two days after it began. Still, many protesters are calling for him to resign.

Piñera concedes the need for change, but told the Financial Times he believes the continuing violence is being spurred by outside forces.

"There is a lot of evidence that behind this situation there are forces that before were not operating, or we did not know were operating, in Chile," Piñera said. 

Chilean police have identified Venezuelan and Cuban nationals among the rioters writes Amelia Cheatham of the Council on Foreign Relations. Piñera is a staunch opponent of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has celebrated the protests. However, many analysts, Cheatham says, question how large a role Caracas could realistically play. 

Meanwhile, the country's spiritual leaders are calling for peaceful dialogue to solve Chile's problems, according to the CNA. Bishop Galo Fernández Villaseca, auxiliary bishop of Santiago, said he was concerned about an "attitude of discord" moving through his country,  and fears what may happen if that is not healed.   

 "It hurts me that the soul of Chile is wounded, is incapable of dialogue, that the soul of Chile claiming legitimate things that we share to a great extent, is walking down a path that is counterproductive," Bishop Fernández said.

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Deborah Bunting is a contributing writer for who has spent decades in the field of journalism, covering everything from politics to the role of the church in our world.