SANTIAGO: When Pope Francis steps off his Alitalia plane at the start of a visit to South America next week, he will cast a rare global spotlight on the plight of the region’s indigenous people.
Francis begins his week-long trip in Chile’s capital Santiago on Monday, but will also visit Temuco, 800 kilometers (500 miles) to the south, for a meeting with representatives of the indigenous Mapuche community.
The Mapuche, Chile’s largest ethnic group, are locked in a sometimes bloody conflict with a government it has long accused of discrimination and abuse, and are also demanding the restitution of traditional tribal lands in private ownership.
“The program of the Holy Father’s visit reflects his concern for an area that has experienced major tensions, with whom he wants to share a message of peace and where he seeks to bring some words of hope,” said the national coordinator for the visit, Fernando Ramos.
Nearly 400,000 people are expected at Tumuco’s Maquehue airbase where the pope will preside over a special “Mass for the integration of the peoples” on Wednesday.
The Mass will feature a Mapuche prayer to honor the first inhabitants of Chile and Argentina.
The 80-year-old pontiff’s arrival in Temuco, the capital of the region of Chile inhabited by the Mapuche, comes shortly after recent commemorations of two events that underscore the conflict with the government.
One is the murder a decade ago of a Mapuche activist, Matias Catrileo, at the hands of the police. The other is the January 2013 arson attack by Mapuche activists on a remote farm, in which a couple were killed as they tried to defend their property.
Eleven Mapuche activists, among them a “machi” or spiritual leader, are awaiting trial in the case, after the state appealed their acquittal by a lower court.
Catrileo was a member of the CAM, a radical group dedicated to the recovery of former Mapuche lands.
The group have admitted firebombing landowners as part of a campaign to reclaim ancestral lands seized by the state at the end of the 19th century and sold to logging companies.
After a two decade campaign, the group has managed to recover several hectares after forcibly evicting foresters.
Ramon Llanquileo, one of the CAM’s leaders, lives today in lands taken from a logging company.
“More than waiting for something, what one expects in the end are certain gestures, that the pope comes and says: ‘the struggle of the Mapuche people is just.’ It is a step forward but here the transformations are being brought about through our own personal efforts,” Llanquileo told Agence France-Presse.
According to analyst and historian Pedro Canales of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Francis is arriving “at a rather complex stage….some more radical groups” have hardened their attitude against the government.
“There is no fluid relationship that allows us to think or predict that they are building a more harmonious future and that there will be dialogue, “ said Canales.
“I think that it’s the opposite, that we are at a dead end,” he said.
After the mass, Francis will meet with a small group of indigenous people in Temuco. It is unclear who will attend but organizers say radicals would not be invited.
For the indigenous leaders it will be an occasion to “make visible” the Mapuche cause amid fears the incoming rightist government of Sebastian Pinera will harden the state’s stance against the Mapuche.
In June, leftist President Michelle Bachelet formally apologized to the Mapuche community for the “errors and horrors” committed by the Chilean state against their communities.
Chile has been criticized by rights groups for inappropriately using anti-terrorist legislation against the Mapuche group.
Reduced today to below 700,000 people, out of a population of 17 million Chileans, the Mapuches have higher poverty levels than the rest of the Chilean population after being reduced to living on about five percent of the land they held before the arrival of Spanish colonizers.
Thus, grouped in small communities, without space to plant or raise animals, most have had to abandon traditional means of subsistence and migrate to the cities.
Francis is scheduled to leave for the Peruvian capital, Lima, on the second leg of his South American visit on Thursday.