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South America

Chile: Attackers firebomb churches ahead of Pope Francis visit

A pamphlet left at one of the churches threatened to place the "next bomb" in the pope's garments. The Catholic Church has fallen out of favor in Chile, with the president urging citizens to welcome him with "respect."

Chilean President Michelle Bachelet on Friday urged the country to welcome Pope Francis in a "climate of respect" after three Catholic churches were firebombed days before the pontiff's visit.

"In a democracy, people can express themselves as long as it's done in a pacifist way," said Bachelet. "What happened last night is very strange. It's not something that we can tie to a particular group."

Read more: Chilean Catholics protest bishop over alleged cover-up of child abuse

At one of the churches, a pamphlet threatened the pope, saying: "The next bomb will be in your robe."

Another pamphlet supported the cause of the Mapuche indigenous people, who are fighting for ownership of ancestral lands. "We will never submit to domination of our bodies, our ideas and actions," it said.

'Minor' damage

Chilean police have launched investigations into the attacks in the Chilean capital, Santiago. Police chief Gonzalo Araya said it was still unclear who the perpetrators were but warned it may have been "anarchist groups."

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Authorities have dismissed the attacks as having any significance, with Interior Ministry official Mahmud Aleuy describing the damage to the churches as "minor."

A billboard welcoming Pope Francis is seen near Las Palmas Air Force Base in Lima's district of Santiago de Surco AFP PHOTO / Cris BOURONCLE

Despite growing discontent with the Catholic Church, more than 500,000 people are expected to gather for the pontiff's visit

Stained reputation

The Argentine pope's visit to Chile marks the first of its kind since the late pontiff St. John Paul II made a trip to the South American country in 1987.

Since then, the Catholic Church has lost much of the respect it gained during the reign of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet, when bishops criticized the regime for human rights abuses.

Read more: Catholic ex-priest refuses to speak at sexual abuse trial in Germany

Most notably, the Catholic Church's handling of a disgraced preacher accused of several instances of sexual abuse has remained a stain on its reputation after the Vatican sentenced him to a lifetime of "penance and prayer" in 2011, a punishment viewed as grossly insufficient by the victims.

Pope Francis is expected to arrive on Monday and is scheduled to visit the capital before moving north toward Peru.

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ls/cmk (AP, Reuters, AFP)

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