On the eve of the trip, vandals firebombed three churches in the Chilean capital of Santiago and warned in a leaflet that “the next bombs will be in your cassock.”
That was an unprecedented threat against the pope and a violent start to what were already expected to be the first-ever protests against Francis on a foreign trip.
The perpetrators placed incendiary devices in all three churches in Santiago, and in one church left a direct threat to the Pope, saying the next bombs would be “in your cassock”.
Chile’s outgoing president Michelle Bachelet said the events were “very strange, because it is not something that can be identified with one specific group”.
She added: “What I’ve been told is that, for example, [when the Pope visited] Colombia, there were groups there with a little sign [in protest]. In a democracy, people can express themselves as long as they do so in a peaceful and appropriate way.”
The Vatican agreed to the Chile visit knowing that the local church had lost much of the moral authority it earned during the Pinochet dictatorship, when bishops spoke out against human rights abuses when other institutions were silenced.
But now, the Catholic Church in Chile has been largely marginalized, criticized as out-of-touch with the secular youth and discredited by its botched handling of a notorious pedophile priest.
Chile’s church has yet to recover its credibility following the scandal over the Reverend Fernando Karadima, a charismatic preacher who had a huge following in Santiago and was responsible for training hundreds of priests and five bishops.
The Vatican in 2011 sentenced Karadima to a lifetime of “penance and prayer” after confirming what his victims had been saying for years but what Chile’s Catholic leadership refused to believe: that Karadima had sexually abused them.
Francis reopened the wounds of the scandal when in 2015 he named one of Karadima’s proteges as bishop of the southern diocese of Osorno. Karadima’s victims say Bishop Juan Barros knew about the abuse but did nothing, a charge Barros denies.
Osorno dissidents are planning protests in Santiago to coincide with Francis’ arrival on Monday.
The perpetrators, who have yet to be identified, attempted attacks on four Catholic churches with various handmade explosive devices according to Crux now.
Authorities expect some protests over clerical sexual abuse during the Pope’s visit, however this is the first direct threat of violence.
The message in the church was written in Spanish, but with “x”s replacing all letters that signify grammatical gender, a practice typical among activists on the radical left.
The message reads: “We will never submit to the dominion you want to exercise over our bodies, our ideas and actions, because we were born free to chose the path we want to take. Against every monk and nun and against every preacher. Bodies free, impure and wild.”
Father Fernando Ibáñez witnessed part of one of the attacks and said that he heard a gang of youths shouting curses outside his window shortly before fire sprang up at the church.
“I heard the dog bark, and from my window I saw the flame,” Ibáñez told Radio Coopertiva.
“I woke up and told the parish priest, Father Cristian. The neighbors were screaming, shouting at us, and all I could do is bring the hose out and begin to put the fire down.”Mahmud Aleuy, Chile’s Interior Sub-secretary, said that despite the pamphlets, the wall message and Ibáñez’s account, authorities do not have enough information to implicate any one group.
The perpetrators used different explosive devices for the arson attacks, utilizing a fire extinguisher inside a plastic bin for two of the attacks, an incendiary device for a third, and another explosive device comprised partly of a gas canister, which the authorities
Crux reports that police diffused a fourth explosive in another church. The assailants left graffiti questioning the cost of the trip when “the poor are dying”.
Pope Francis is due to visit Chile from 15 to 18 January.