From our special correspondent
It is a residence in the center of Santiago that looks like a small mansion, partly hidden by palm trees. For the moment, it is still anonymous, even if the “Santa Monica house” – as it is still called, from the name of the street where it is located – is anchored in the memory of many Chileans. A plaque should soon recall its historical role. Because fifty years ago, it was here that the only hope for the families of the victims of the coup d’état of September 11, 1973 and the terrible repression that followed resided.
Just a few weeks after the bombing of the presidential palace, the Pro Paz Committee was created at the initiative of the Catholic Church to help the relatives of the missing. For two years, the “Santa Monica House” provided essential material, moral and legal support to families. And saved lives. Like that of Sergio Zamora, a socialist activist arrested in 1975 after twenty months of clandestinity and a few outrages, such as the dispersal of leaflets in the heart of Santiago. By crossing the gate of the small mansion, after having escaped, by trickery, the very day of his arrest, from the guards who had tortured him, Sergio Zamora found the determined help of the committee. And that of the Archbishop of Santiago, Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez, who intervened with General Pinochet to avoid further capture (1).
Last May, on the occasion of the first ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état of September 11, 1973, it was the central figure of the cardinal, who died in 1999, that the government of Gabriel Boric held to pay homage. A mass was celebrated in his memory at La Moneda, the presidential palace bombed in 1973.
As part of this anniversary date, the Catholic Church, in Santiago and in the provinces, held meetings and discussions to reflect on the lessons to be learned from the past. In Concepcion, the country’s third city, 500 km south of Santiago, Archbishop Fernando Chomali even became a director: he produced a documentary of around forty minutes on families who, even today, are seeking the body of a loved one who disappeared under the dictatorship. Nearly 1,200 victims of Augusto Pinochet are, half a century later, still awaiting burial.
This group began meeting every week in premises provided by the Church starting in 1978. “I made this documentary to pay tribute to these families and the victims, and so that Chilean youth know what happened in our country,” explains Mgr Fernando Chomali. In his film, presented on September 1 in a packed room in Concepcion, he notably gives the floor to the deputy of the region, whose father immolated himself in front of the cathedral in 1983 upon learning of his arrest and that of his brother. Maria Candelaria Acevedo was released just in time to see her father one last time before he died from his injuries.
During the discussion which followed the screening, Hilda Espinoza, whose husband disappeared in January 1975, paid tribute to the role of the Church: “Through Mgr Fernando Chomali, I want to thank the Church as a whole for all the support we have always received from him. Without her, we would not be here today as we are: standing. Because we had a roof, protection, a house, lawyers, thanks to the Church. »
“The Chilean Catholic Church was courageous under Pinochet, and in the days following the coup,” confirms historian Patricio Jimenez, professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. “On September 18, National Day, she refused to organize a Te Deum, as is tradition in Chile. This is the only year without Te Deum in our history. In the context of the time, it was not just a symbol… Then very quickly, in October, the Pro Paz committee was created, which in 1975 became the vicariate of solidarity, which did not close its doors only with the return of democracy. »
This attitude is all the more striking since it was not that of the Catholic authorities in other countries in the region, also under the control of the military, despite pockets of resistance. “In Chile, the Church was sensitive very early, from the beginning of the 20th century, to democracy and social issues, influenced by French and Belgian social Catholicism,” continues Patricio Jimenez. Cardinal Raul Silva Henriquez was trained in this spirit. » Fifty years later, the Church remembers. She calls for “a month of prayer for Chile”. Five bells ring out on September 11 in churches across the country, particularly in tribute to the victims of human rights abuses.
But is the country willing to listen to the Catholic Church, shaken by numerous resounding pedophilia scandals? “Some believe, even within the Church, that we no longer have the necessary legitimacy to address these questions,” recognizes Father Tomas Scherz, parish priest of Santa Ana in Santiago. “And there is no question to use the 50th anniversary of the coup as a “marketing plan” to restore the image of the Church. But many consider, like me, that it is our duty to speak about the victims. »
In parishes, but not only. Several events took place at the Catholic University, in Santiago, for example. “But the truth is that the Church is no longer audible in Chile,” laments Mariana Aylwin, minister of education from 2000 to 2003 and daughter of Patricio Aylwin, figure of Christian democracy and first head of state after the dictatorship. “It also lacks major national figures. His speech today no longer extends beyond the confines of churches. » On Chile’s past as well as its present.