Hooded protesters in Chile’s capital Santiago looted a Roman Catholic church on 8 November near Plaza Italia square - the main venue of weeks of mass anti-government protests, the AP reports.
People were seen dragging religious adornments out of La Asuncion church and adding them to a barricade that was set on fire.
The church was reportedly stripped bare, as everything from church pews to statues of Jesus and other religious iconography were carried out into the street, with the ashes from the blaze spreading to Santiago’s Plaza Italia square where, according to the Chilean capital’s mayor, an estimated 75,000 people had crowded, chanting and holding banners, with many turning on the lights on their cellphones and waving Chilean national flags.
Rock-throwing demonstrators clashed with riot police a short time after the church was looted as the authorities responded with tear gas and water cannons.
There were plumes of smoke seen billowing from the nearby headquarters of Pedro de Valdivia University, which was also looted.
🔴🇨🇱 CHILE URGENTE— lucas rohan (@lucasrohan) November 8, 2019
Bombeiros combatem 3 incêndios em Santiago. Na foto, incêndio em uma universidade pic.twitter.com/0UQPLnlP4J
Authorities were reported to be still investigating the cause of the fire, as it wasn’t clear if the protesters had torched it.
Chile’s President vows to crack down on crime
Earlier on Friday, thousands of people had gathered in the capital’s square, as truck drivers and students were protesting against a spate of security measures announced by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera earlier in the week.
What began as a relatively peaceful protest shortly escalated as a large group of black-clad, hooded protesters led the raid on the church.
On Thursday, Chile's President Sebastian Pinera said he would send bills to Chile's congress to toughen penalties against looting, violence and destruction committed during protests, particularly for hooded perpetrators trying to hide their identities.
Pinera vowed to beef up intelligence-gathering activities, saying in a televised speech:
"One of the principal responsibilities of the state is to ensure public order and security."
He added that police and security forces in Chile had "total support" from his administration.
Pinera is also expected to reshuffle his cabinet and announced a raise in the minimum salary.
Chile's worst unrest since the end of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in 1990 is reported to have wrought more than $1.5 billion in damage to businesses.
Protests show no sign of abating
Santiago's Plaza Italia has been used for three weeks now as the main gathering site for mass demonstrations, as nationwide protests are estimated to have left 20 dead so far and a further 2,500 injured.
Initially, the unrest was sparked last month by a public transport peak-time fare hike that prompted students to start jumping turnstiles in protest; like many Latin American countries, Chile has a high degree of income inequality, ranking among the top 25 most unequal countries in the world, according to the World Bank estimate of its GINI index.
The turmoil gradually escalated and spread nationwide with a broad range of demands put forward, that included improvements in education and health care.
Resource-rich Chile has long been seen as a stable democracy with South America's highest per-capita income; however, this has failed to save the country from a wave of protests which have hit several countries in Latin America in the past few months, including Bolivia and Ecuador.
Analysts cited by AFP claim there has been an accumulation of anger as the working class has failed to share in the benefits of three decades of growth, with economic and political power in the country vested in the hands of a wealthy minority that display a disconnect with the population.
They also cite popular frustration over a spate of high-profile corruption cases involving money laundering, tax fraud and illegal political party financing, where those convicted have successfully dodged prison sentences.