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Pope to champion indigenous people on Chile, Peru trip

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By Catherine MARCIANO / Agence France-Presse

Pope Francis is expected to defend persecuted indigenous people during a trip to Chile and Peru next week that also aims to boost a flagging local Catholic church hit by child sex scandals.

The Argentine’s 22nd trip abroad and sixth to Latin America will see him address everything from climate change threats to the mining industry, but the uneasy political situation in both countries will require an extra-soft approach.

Chile is in transition after the presidential victory of billionaire Sebastian Pinera, who tapped into a deeply conservative tranche of society upset at his centre-left predecessor’s support for gay marriage and abortion.

Francis will sit down with outgoing President Michelle Bachelet, before also — more informally — meeting Pinera, who takes over in March.

He will also have a private meeting with two victims of the regime of the late dictator Augusto Pinochet.

For its part, Peru has been shaken by protests after the highly controversial release this month of former president Alberto Fujimori after serving less than half of a 25-year sentence for human rights abuses.

The decision to pardon him was made by President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who is accused of lying to cover up ties to a Brazilian company that has admitted to wide-scale corruption.

Peru has also been in the headlines following the Vatican’s decision this week to take control of a Catholic movement whose founder is accused of the sexual and psychological abuse of minors.

Francis has been slammed by victim support groups for allowing Luis Fernando Figari to retire quietly in Rome.

There is no official meeting with victims scheduled, though the pope may meet some away from the media gaze.

– Soft spot for the Amazon –
The highlight of his January 15 to 21 trip will be lunch meetings with representatives of indigenous peoples.

In Temuco, Francis will chat with Mapuche natives — some seven percent of the Chilean population — who inhabited a vast territory before the arrival of Spanish colonists in 1541, and have long protested the loss of ancestral lands.

Not all will be pleased to see him: a radicalised group of activists in the Auracania region has taken to torching farms and lumber trucks as well as setting fire to churches.

In Puerto Maldonado, a small trading centre of the Amazon rainforest in southeastern Peru, Francis will be welcomed by some 3,500 indigenous people from areas stretching into Bolivia and Brazil.

The environmentally-conscious pope has a soft spot for the Amazon and will hold a special assembly of bishops from the region next year in a bid to support indigenous people and turn the spotlight on one of the world’s green “lungs”.

– Wake-up call –
It will not all be crowd-pleasing masses: the local churches “need a shock” to shake them out of a complacent attitude to the sexual abuse scandals that have hounded the Catholic church for decades, a close aide to the pope told AFP.

Francis will also take the opportunity of closed-door meetings with local clerics to call on them to do more to help foster his vision for an open, merciful and socially-engaged church.

“Under Pinochet’s dictatorship, the church was seen as a reference point for the protection of human rights,” said Chile’s ambassador to the Holy See, Mariano Fernandez Amunategui.

“Today the names of bishops are less known, secularisation has reduced their role,” he said.

While the number of Catholics in Peru hovers between 85 and 90 percent of the population, in Chile it dropped from 70 percent to 67 percent between 2006 and 2014, while the number of atheists rose to 22 percent.

The trip promises to be physically demanding, with 81-year old Francis hopping on 10 flights to travel over 30,000 kilometres through hot and humid climates.

It will also take the pontiff down memory lane.

The Argentine studied in Chile during his youth and has invited a Chilean Jesuit friend to accompany him on this visit. (AFP)