Last October, Chile was in the news for all the wrong reasons: during anti-government protests, revolutionary groups, largely made up of communists and anarchists, were violently targeting Catholic churches. It is estimated that 18 churches have been burned and looted in the capital city, Santiago. In January, the police’s preferred place of worship, Iglesia San Francisco de Borja, was set on fire.
But now a group of young people are taking steps to defend Santiago’s sacred places. Led by recent graduate and senate adviser Magdalena Moncada, 80 Catholics under the age of 30 have taken to sleeping in churches in order to protect them from fire and destruction.
Tired of the authorities’ inertia, Magdalena has mobilised troops. “We go to churches at night and we sleep in them,” Moncada tells the Catholic Herald. “We barricade the doors with wet towels and we take fire extinguishers. Throughout the night, we say the rosary. It’s scary but I am not frightened because we have holy water.”
The group – which doesn’t have an official name – shares its plans on group conversations in WhatsApp. Moncada emphasises the importance that the rebels do not know the group’s whereabouts. “No one knows that we are inside because it’s really dangerous. They could put a bomb inside.” If necessary, the group stops praying so as not to give themselves away.
As well as protecting the churches from within, the group works to preserve the dignity of destroyed buildings. Last month the young Catholics repainted the facade of the famous Iglesia de Los Santos Angeles Custodios, which had been defaced.
“The greatest challenge is explaining what we are doing to our parents,” says Moncada. “My mother is very scared for me but she understands that we must do this.” The group hopes to defend Catholic values and buildings across Chile.
“We want to be brave enough to help the churches, to restore them, to speak up, to help the priests. For now, we are sleeping in churches.”
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