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How Indigenous Conflicts in Chile Ended up Targeting Christians

Mapuche attacks against the government and environmental companies have included the arson of numerous churches.
How Indigenous Conflicts in Chile Ended up Targeting Christians
Image: NurPhoto / Contributor / Getty
Mapuche Huilliche communities have indefinitely taken over the Osorno Cathedral in Chile.

Last week, the Argentine government blamed a fire that has consumed more than 7,000 acres of a national park in Patagonia on arson by an armed indigenous group known as the Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM).

The Mapuche, an indigenous community who have lived for generations in a territory now belonging to Argentina and Chile, have long been at odds with governments and businesses, often over land rights, environmental concerns, and fears of forced assimilation.

Despite the presence of Mapuche Christians, for a period of years, members of groups like Weichán Auca Mapu (WAM) and Coordinadora Arauco-Malleco (CAM) targeted numerous churches. The number of torched congregations reached more than 80. The government struggled to arrest and prosecute the attackers.

But after several intense years of terror, slowly the situation seems to be improving.

“We will continue to bear witness to the gospel,” Abelino Apeleo, an Anglican bishop in Araucanía and also an ethnic Mapuche, said in 2017, in the thick of the situation. “We have to apply the teachings of Jesus: to forgive, to have mercy, and to love our enemies. At some point they may need our help, and we will be there for them.”

Answered prayers?

In 2016, Elías Fuentealba witnessed WAM members burn down the small Pentecostal church he pastored in Niagara, a city in the southern division of Araucanía.

“The day of the arson, we gathered and prayed outside the church, ‘Lord, you give, and you take away. Blessed be your name,’” Fuentealba told CT. “When we finished praying, the police told us that, nearby there, they had caught some suspects of the crime.”

The five gunmen were charged with being members of WAM; at that point, the group had already claimed responsibility for several arson attacks against Catholic and evangelical churches and schools in the region of Araucanía. WAM’s attacks on churches often came with demands, though ones that most congregations were unable to respond to, such as the release of Mapuche prisoners or the return of Mapuche land, which the Chilean government annexed in the 19th century.

The arrest of the Niagara suspects was the only such intervention in all of the church arson cases and these actions initially encouraged Fuentealba’s flock. But the government failed to prosecute as harshly as Fuentealba had wished; it dropped the terrorist charges and sentenced just two of those five initially arrested to ten years in jail for “common arson.”

In 2021, after serving just two years in prison, they were granted early release on parole.

“We are law-abiding people, but it was hard to realize that the government only met with the perpetrators, and that justice didn’t work for us victims,” said Fuentealba, who added that he and some church members were threatened and intimidated during the trial.

‘Because it is foreign’

Araucanía in southern Chile has the highest percentage of Mapuche (a quarter of all those over age 14) of any of Chile’s 16 regions. For more than 300 years, the Mapuche controlled the southern bank of the country’s second-largest river, the Biobío, which runs through the region. Except for a few Franciscan missions, which were largely accepted by the indigenous people during the Spanish period of that area, the Mapuches avoided Western colonization until after Chile gained its independence in 1818. When the new government sought more centralized control, it began to forcibly assimilate and displace many in the community.

While the majority of Mapuche converted to Catholicism in the past, today evangelicals make up 35 percent of the population, largely due to the efforts of 19th-century Anglican and Methodist missionaries, who delivered health care, education, and the gospel to indigenous communities. Many also converted as a result of the Chilean Pentecostal movement in the early 1900s.

While most Mapuche live peacefully among non-indigenous Chileans, WAM and CAM have led different land occupation protests, road blockades, and attacks on forestry companies, including burning machinery. But in 2016, their targets became churches, which, beyond their religious purposes, also often 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.

“What they want is territorial control,” Patricio Santibáñez, president of Araucanía’s trade association, told CT. “They don’t want the children going to school, so they burn the schools down. They don’t want people going to church, so they burn the churches. It is to subdue the population in that area.”

The Institute for Economics and Peace ranked Chile at No. 17 on its 2023 Global Terrorism Index.

“To measure the severity of the conflict in this area, we are talking about at least 25 highly serious criminal acts per month. Sometimes we have reached almost 60,” said Santibáñez.

Many Mapuche believe they are the rightful owners of the land now owned by businesses and the government. They also resent what they see as a relentless infiltration of a foreign culture, which has coincided with the decline of the traditional Mapuche identity.

According to community leaders, many of these tensions came to a head in 2015, when the government forcibly evicted a Mapuche community occupying lands belonging to a Catholic monastery near Lake Budi. In retaliation for that, “[The radicals] began to say, We are going to burn all the churches!” said Fuentealba. “But there is also a deeper issue, where evangelical Christians are sometimes seen as enemies of traditional Mapuche culture.”

Christian leaders often forbade Mapuche converts from participating in indigenous religious practices or ceremonies and openly condemned cultural aspects that they felt endorsed occultism or violated the Bible. Though these measures were meant to help new Christians grow in their faith, many Mapuche who held on to their traditional beliefs saw these restrictions as dividing their community and separating Mapuche Christians from their heritage.

For radical Mapuche groups, everything from the outside is considered an “invasion” of their culture, religion, and territory, said Joel Millanguir, a Mapuche Christian who serves as the Anglican bishop of Araucanía.

“They see the gospel as an intrusion; and because it is foreign, they reject it,” he said. “Those who carry out these attacks are a new generation of Mapuche leaders who are unaware of the great work that the churches have done in this area.”

This polarization has made it harder for Mapuche Christians to both practice their faith and participate in their culture.

“Churches are based in Mapuche communities where terrorist groups operate,” said Stephan Schubert, an evangelical in Chile’s Chamber of Deputies whose district represents part of Araucanía. “This has restrained some of the most extreme violence, but it poses a challenge for those who are evangelical Christians, because they do not engage in some of their pagan practices.”

But not all the animosity toward Christians is unjustified, said Omar Cortés, a former Protestant pastor who now leads the National Office of Religious Affairs.

Christian organizations have a “burden of colonization” and a “history of demonization” of Mapuche spirituality.

“Radicalized groups seeking to draw more attention to their demands resort to attacking churches,” he explained.

‘Face to face’

Santibáñez currently sees a parallel between his country’s situation and that of other countries in Latin America.

“I find similarities with what happened in Colombia, with the FARC. On the ideological side, it also resembles the extremism of the Sendero Luminoso in Peru. But finally, it mixes in organized crime, like drug trafficking, lumber theft, animal trafficking, and vehicle theft,” said Santibáñez.

In response to these attacks, the federal government has issued a state of emergency in Araucanía and has dispatched soldiers to guard main roads. Santibáñez notes that in recent years, land seizure crimes have significantly decreased.

“But not armed attacks and arson,” he said.

Nevertheless, Chile has never appeared on Open Doors’ World Watch List, which identifies the top countries in which it’s most difficult to be a Christian. And in recent years, though protests and violence have continued overall, attacks on churches have become far less frequent, thanks to the mediation of Christian leaders. The last arson attack on a church in Araucanía occurred in August of last year when one group started a fire that destroyed numerous parts of a town.

Still, despite the overall decrease in attacks, “very few people have been detained and convicted,” said Millanguir, the Anglican bishop.

Schubert would like the Chilean National Congress to appropriate more money for security in Araucanía.

“We face a violation of the human right to freedom of religion, he said. “And the state of Chile has done almost nothing to prevent this.”

Regional funds allocated from the national budget for terrorism victims can be used to rebuild churches, says Cortés of the National Office of Religious Affairs. But that was not the case for Fuentealba’s Pentecostal church in Niagara, which instead relied on the funds of community members and international Christian organizations to rebuild—which it sought to do immediately.

“We ensured that our new building was entirely made of solid and fireproof materials,” Fuentealba told CT.

And despite the terror faced in 2016, he says his congregation has not been frightened by the violence.

“We don’t hate them,” he said, referring to the Mapuche attackers. “We want them to be converted and someday talk to them about Christ face to face.”

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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