It has been a long time in coming, but strained relations between the Chilean government and the Roman Catholic Church have spilled into an open and vicious war of words.
Raul Cardinal Silva Henriquez hurled the first salvo, openly accusing Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte's government of starting a campaign to discredit the church.
Further, in a protest letter read at masses March 13, the cardinal said the government was ignoring Vatican appeals by threatening to expel three foreign priests accused of running a ''politically oriented'' soup kitchen for the poor.
Whether the Silva Henriquez blast is the beginning of a major church-state conflict or merely the first in a series of sniping incidents is unclear.
But there is no doubt that a clash between the two is brewing. There has never been much goodwill between the Roman Catholic hierarchy, which represents most of Chile's 11.3 million people, and the nearly 10-year-old Pinochet dictatorship.
In the mid-1970s, there was a series of church-state controversies. But over the past six years the two institutions slipped into a truce of sorts. Many Chilean observers think the cease-fire has ended.
Government officials are testy in their comments on the church. Gen. Fernando Paredes, one of General Pinochet's top aides, last August said flatly that church leaders had become ''allies of the Marxists.''
''Nonsense'' was the church's quick rejoinder.
But now Cardinal Silva Henriquez has gone further, claiming the regime is out to discredit the church and churchmen.
''Police visit the parishes, asking questions that sow doubts and fears among humble people,'' he said this past weekend. ''At the bottom of this, we see that the church's activism is misunderstood. It is thought that feeding those who have no jobs or organizing those who have no place to live is done for political reasons.''
To General Pinochet, however, such activity smacks of dissent and opposition. In remarks over the weekend, he warned of a continuing crackdown on such dissent. ''Those who fail to understand this,'' he said, ''will abide by the consequences.''
General Pinochet has always been uneasy with opposition. When he seized power in a violent coup d'etat in 1973, Pinochet's government quickly banned political parties and stamped out dissent within military ranks. But the church in a nominally Roman Catholic nation proved a tougher nut to crack.
Now, however, as Chile's economic situation nosedives, as new political rumblings are heard, and as rivalries within the military emerge, the Pinochet government is strained under a heavy load of troubles. This, in a sense, helps explain the present attack on the church, observers say.
The economic strains are most pressing. Chile's economy is faltering. Foreign debt (about $17 billion) soars at a time when the government doesn't have the funds to repay the interest, much less the principal. Once-thriving foreign trade languishes as exports fall due to Chile's overpriced peso.
Inflation is again running at 100 percent a year, pinching the pocketbooks of Chile's middle class, which has provided General Pinochet's biggest supporters. Unemployment, particularly among the urban poor, is up to more than 20 percent - and climbing.
The number of business bankruptcies is also escalating. Several banks have collapsed and the government has intervened on behalf of others, assuming some of their debt.
Against this background, General Pinochet sees any dissent as ''treason,'' a word he has used recently to describe those, including church figures, who oppose his regime.