SANTIAGO – Four churches have been set on fire over the past 48 hours in the southern region of Araucania, Chilean authorities said on Thursday, pointing to members of the Mapuche indigenous group as the likely culprits.
A church went up in flames in the wee hours of Thursday and flyers left at the scene referred to the ongoing hunger strike by four Mapuche activists locked up pending trial in connection with another church fire last year, police said.
Three other houses of worship were torched on Wednesday.
The hunger strikers – Alfredo Tralcal and brothers Ariel, Pablo and Benito Trangol – were taken to a hospital Wednesday due to concerns about their health after 103 days of fasting, only to be returned to jail hours later.
In a related development, Mapuche supporters peacefully occupied the Catholic cathedral in the southern city of Concepcion on Thursday to show solidarity with the prisoners.
Besides setting churches ablaze, Mapuche Indian militants have torched vehicles, highway toll booths and lumber shipments in a bid to reclaim lands lost during a late-19th-century “pacification” campaign against the indigenous people of southern Chile.
The conflict has claimed the lives of Mapuche activists, police and farmers, while dozens of indigenous people have been sent to prison, mainly for crimes against property.
The indigenous militants are often prosecuted and tried under a draconian anti-terrorism law left over from the 1973-1990 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.
Mapuches make up around 650,000 of Chile’s 17 million people and are concentrated in Araucania and greater Santiago.