A mob of masked protesters set fire Jan. 3 to a Catholic church dedicated to serving the national police in Santiago, Chile, while an anti-government demonstration was in progress in nearby Plaza Italia.
According to local reports, a group of masked individuals surrounded Saint Francis Borgia Church, located two blocks away from the plaza, around 8 p.m., setting fire to a vehicle parked outside and then starting fires inside the church and an attached building.
Three companies of firemen arrived at the scene, but the masked mob blocked their passage and they were unable to put out the fire in a timely manner, according to reports.
The church was built in 1876 and was originally the Sacred Heart of Jesus Chapel of Saint Borgia Hospital. In November 1975, it was set aside to serve the spiritual needs of the Carabineros, the national police force.
The church is situated in the same area of Santiago where Assumption and Veracruz (True Cross) churches were also set on fire last November.
The Carabineros tweeted “we deeply regret to report that Saint Francis Borgia church where we have said farewell to our more than one thousand martyrs has been set on fire by a mob of vandals.”
Anti-government demonstrations broke out in mid-October in Santiago over a now-suspended increase in subway fares. Other regions joined in the protests, expanding their grievances to inequality and the cost of healthcare.
A number of churches across Chile have been attacked and looted amid the demonstrations in the country.
The protests have put pressure on the administration of President Sebastián Piñera to introduce reforms, in addition to announcing the drafting of a new Constitution to replace the one enacted by the military regime of Augusto Pinochet in 1980.
Protest marches often start our peacefully, but end up with clashes between the police and masked protesters, who often turn to attacking churches as well as public and private property.
In a Jan. 4 message following the fire at Saint Franics Borgia church, Chile's bishop for the military and security forces, Santiago Silva Retamales, expressed his closeness to the Carabineros and condemned the persistent violence in the country.
He called the attack “bewildering” and “incomprehensible,” noting that the church serves not only the national police, but also the whole community.
“To all the members of the beloved institution of the Carabineros throughout the country, spiritually united around this church during recent decades, I express my closeness in these difficult moments and I encourage you to remain determined safeguard order and social peace,” the bishop said.
While the local Church has promoted respect for human rights and the legitimate, just demands of society, it also condemns the “persistent violence that only deepens Chile's wounds,” he said.
“The future of the country depends on our capacity for sincere dialogue to discern what is just,” Bishop Silva stressed, “with agreements involving all parties that should be respected and concrete actions that would restore to Chile its soul as a people with the vocation of unity, respect for everyone, and integral development.”
A Mass of reparation was offered in front of Saint Francis Borgia church Jan. 5, celebrated by Bishop Silva and concelebrated by the apostolic nuncio, several other bishops, the chaplains of the three branches of the Armed Forces and the Carabineros, along with clergy from these institutions.
In attendance were the General Director of the Carabineros, General Mario Rozas Córdova and his wife, accompanied by the High Command, delegations from the Armed Forces and the Carabineros along with their families, friends of the Carabineros, neighbors and hundreds of other people.
In his homily, Silva said that although “they had burned the church, they had not burned the community, they did not burn the faith.”
“Our hope is untouched,” he said.