Pope avoids confrontation with Pinochet


SANTIAGO, Chile -- Pope John Paul II preached the need for peaceful change and greater participation up and down Chile last week, but staywed away from direct confrontation with Gen. Augusto Pinochet's military regime.

During his six-day pastoral visit, the pontiff endorsed the Roman Catholic Church's commitment to the defense of human rights, the main area of friction between church and state.


Violent demonstrations erupted during an out-door mass, marring the pope's message of reconciliation and starkly revealing the political tensions wracking the nation.

The trip, which also took the pope to Uruguay and Aregntina, was planned two years ago to commemorate a 1985 border dispute treaty mediated by the Vatican between Chile and Argentina, and was delayed by opposition within the Chilean church to a papal visit while the military remained in power.

John Paul heard slum dwellers' testimonies of torture and police repression. He hugged a disfigured girl who had been set ablaze by troops during a anti-government protest last year.


But if the pope had any harsh words for Pinochet, he said them in private when they met at La Moneda, the presidential palace.

Only hours before setting foot in Chile, speaking to Vatican reporters aboard the papal plane, the pontiff described Chile as a 'dictatorship' and said the church should carry out the same mission as the Phillipine church, which played a key role in deposing Ferdinand Marcos last year.

He never repeated those words in Chile, disappointing Pinochet's opponents who had hoped the pope would publicly condemn the regime and bless their campaign for a return to democracy.

Pinochet benefitted from nationwide television exposure when he appeared on the balcony of the presidential palace with the pope.

A vatican spokesman denied a government version that the pope had blessed Pinochet when the two prayed together in a chapel after the pontiff informally greeted the cabinet and Pinochet's five children and 17 grandchildren.

'If this was a three-way football match, I would say the score was Vatican 3, Government 1, Opposition 0,' one American diplomat said.

For six days, however, Chile enjoyed unprecedented freedom of expression, the result of live television coverage of the pope's visit and police restraint ordered by authorities concerned with the government's image.


Moderate opposition leaders, long barred access to the media, appeared on television putting their views to the country in face-to-face debates with government ministers.

For the first time, the nation saw a slum dweller speak out on television about unemployment and hunger, and demand the return of political exiles.

When the pope met with 100,000 youths packed into Santiago's National Stadium, which was used as a detention and torture center during the 1973 coup, one group unfurled a large banner that said: 'Pinochet Assassin.'

'It is the first time Chileans are listening to each other and hearing voices that have long been silenced,' said journalist Malu Sierra in one television debate.

The crowds that greeted the pope whistled and jeered openly at police, often shouting: 'Pope, our brother, take the tyrant away with you.'

The protests sparked the worst violence ever registered on a papal trip when leftist youths stoned unarmed police at a papal mass attended by 1 million.

Demonstrators lit bonfires in the middle of the crowd, causing panic, and then stoned foreign journalists and priests who sought to stop the battle that broke out when riot police entered the park.

Authorities said 75 police officers and at least 150 spectators were injured in the fracas.


Tear gas floated towards the altar where John Paul celebrated a mass. Priests were seen crying, but the pope's personal doctor said the pontiff was not affected.

The outbreak eclipsed the importance of an unscheduled meeting between the pope and political leaders representing the whole of Chile's political spectrum, a historic event that brought rightists and leftists together for the first time.

The meeting was attended by a leader of the outlawed Communist Party, and only one political group, formed by Pinochet supporters, was excluded.

The pope urged the politicians to condemn violence and use their country's democratic heritage to overcome the nation's tensions.

The pope's call for unity was buried soon after his departure in a war of recriminations over who provoked the violence, as right-wingers accused the Communists and leftists blamed pro-government provocateurs.

'What now?' is the question on most Chilean minds after the papal visit.

Observers said the pope's trip would have little impact on getting Pinochet to restore democracy, since the pontiff emphasized the strictly neutral role of the church and chided priests working in poor neighborhoods for engaging in political activities.

The main effect of the visit is expected to be seen in human rights.


'The pope has clearly established that human rights are a key issue in any reconciliation,' said Andres Dominguez, coordinator of the Chilean Human Rights Commission.

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