POPE John Paul's five days in Chile comes at a time when relations between the military dictatorship of General Pinochet and the Catholic hierarchy are at an all time low.
Contacts between officials and church workers over consistent human rights abuse by the army continue, but Pinochet and the head of the Catholic Church, Cardinal Juan Francisco Fresno, have seen little of each other since the general took advantage of a meeting last March to score propoganda points. Cardinal Fresno paid a call at the presidential palace to discuss, privately, papal trip arrangements. He was greeted by a beaming general and a bevvy of photographers. The next day the headlines screamed: "Cardinal congratulates Pinochet on five years of the constitution". This document has been scorned by church and opposition alike since its inception.
Pinochet himself will be at the airport to grcct the Pup..
he arrives on April 2 after a stopover in Montevideo, the Uruguayan capital. Diplomatic niceties aside, it remains to be seen if the Pope will have any further contacts with the dictator.
At 71, Pinochet has been in power since 1973 when a bloody coup swept away the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende.
Since 1973, Chile's Catholic bishops, previously remarkable only for their conservatism, have maintained a united and vocal campaign against the flagrant human rights violations of the dictatorship. Their opposition to Pinochet reached such a pitch that the general left the Catholic Church two years ago, and now bestows his favours on the Pentecostalist Church, to the extent of attending the inauguration of their new Santiago headquarters.
Leading article page four One of the bishops' principal weapons in fighting Pinochet's attempts to disguise his regime's bloody methods of silencing opposition is the Vicariate of Solidarity which monitors "disappearances" and abuse.
Such work has involved it in constant clashes with the authorities. The case below of a doctor and lawyer who are to be prosecuted is just a part of the official campaign against the Vicariate, and is seen as an attempt by the courts to force the human rights office to open its files to official scrutiny.
The Executive-Secretary of the Vicariate, Enrique Palet, has received numerous death threats, while workers involved with it, like Manuel Parada, have been brutally murdered. However, the Vicariate continues its mission to the "disappeared" and their families, with the full support of the hierarchy.
One particular case from last summer demonstrates the capacity of Chile's military rulers for brutality. Rodrigo Rojas, an 18 year old Chilean who had spent most of his life in the United States, was travelling back from an anti-government demonstration on a bus when he and his girlfriend were dragged off the vehicle and set alight by soldiers in front of many witnesses.
Rojas died later—partly a result of being taken to a general hospital instead of a specialised burns unit. The frantic efforts of the US Ambassador to Chile, Harry Barnes, failed to achieve this transfer. His girlfriend remains in a critical condition, her life shattered.
In the face of sworn testimonies, the government is "investigating". Expert observers feel that a couple of junior soldiers may be hauled up for trial, but the real culprits—those who gave the orders—will never be exposed.
The state of siege which has been in force in Chile for several months was lifted days before the Vatican made its announcement of the papal itinerary. The two events are closely linked in many Vatican correspondents minds. But Rome should be wary of being taken in by outward appearances. For state of siege or not, the constitution, under article 24, gives the President absolute powers as and when he wishes to exercise them.
Pinochet has also promised that a new law legalising "most political parties" will be enacted during 1987. Such a small concession falls significantly short of the demands of the National Accord, a broad alliance of opposition parties of right, left and centre, put together by Cardinal Fresno in 1985. They wanted a return to democracy and steps to ensure that at once. Pinochet met the Cardinal, but refused even to consider the carefully worded and moderate demands of the parties that have been crushed by the dictatorship since the 1973 coup.
If the Vatican thinking behind the trip is that the Pope's presence may prompt a reopening of dialogue, then they might take a leaf out of the United States' book. It was with US assistance that the military toppled Allende in 1973. But the US was behind a March 13, 1986, resolution to the United Nations Human Rights Commission castigating the Chilean government for its abuses.
They have lost patience with trying to dialogue with the dictator.