Chile's president tells churches 'no'


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SANTIAGO, CHILE -  Chile celebrates 200 years of independence on September 18, and in anticipation of the milestone, the country has entered a period of self-evaluation and reflection about its future.  

The Catholic Church seized on this historic moment to present President Sebastián Piñera with a project it calls "Bicentennial Pardon".  The project aims to liberate or reduce the sentences of jailed persons who meet certain criteria, such as being at least 70 years of age, suffering terminal illnesses or mothers with minor children. 

The Bicentennial Pardon project has become controversial, however, because it would also liberate or reduce the jail terms of military officers serving sentences for human-rights violations for crimes committed during the Augusto Pinochet years.  

Key players in Chile's government have moved quickly to speak against the Church's project.  

"The church is overstepping the bounds of its authority and social role" on this point, said Minister of the Interior Rodrigo Hinzpeter.  The Church is simply not welcome to tread on ground that has nothing to do with the faith, in Hinzpeter's view. 

Human-rights groups also harshly criticized the Church's bicentennial proposal.  Some have gone so far as to say "the Church has just given up everything it gained during the Pinochet years".  The Catholic Church had built up enormous good will in Chile due to its ironclad defense of human rights during the darkest days of the dictatorship. Rights groups are troubled by the apparant shift in the Church's attitudes toward punishing rights violators. 

Evangelical groups immediately stepped in with their own proposal for pardons.  The evangelical proposal carefully excludes any person convicted in connection with the Pinochet military rule, but the evangelical proposal would allow benefits for prisoners who have shown contrition for their acts and who have behaved well in prison. 

The "historical churches", as the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, Anglicans and a few others are known in Chile, elected not to participate in the Protestant proposal.  The historical churches argued that, in light of the principle of separation of church and state, it is not appropriate for representatives of any religion to advocate for political projects like this. 

President Piñera is in a delicate situation, since he is a devout Catholic and is related to Catholic dignitaries.  But in the end, Piñera chose not to move forward with the general pardon.  He will instead evaluate pardons on a case-by-case basis, he said. 

So, there will be no grand pardon to coincide with Chile's bicentennial celebrations, though discussions of the relationship between a strong Catholic Church and the state will figure in to this period of national introspection. 

But this time around, Chile's head of state did not take his Church's political initiatives as his own.