Chileans look to Pope to influence country's political future. Public fervently awaits his views on regime's politics, human rights record

Dueling powers of the troubled Chilean society - the Roman Catholic Church and the ruling military regime - come face to face this week as Pope John Paul II arrives April 1 for a six-day visit. Anticipation is running high among Chileans.

The authoritarian rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte has come under increasing pressure at home and from abroad to relax strict political controls and limit human rights violations. Papal visits to similar regimes in Haiti and the Philippines have been credited with helping to spark the eventual ousters of Jean-Claude Duvalier and Ferdinand Marcos.

Politics clearly overshadows the stated mission of the three-nation South American papal tour: to commemorate the end of a territorial dispute over the Beagle Channel, at the southern tip of the continent. The dispute, which brought Argentina and Chile to the brink of war in 1978, was resolved in 1985 after five years of Vatican mediation. The Pope will commemorate the agreement tomorrow on neutral territory in Uruguay.

``There is a fervor I've not seen in years,'' says Ariel Dorfman, a Chilean writer who teaches at Duke University. ``The despair has been such that now [Chileans] believe that the Pope will fix everything. He represents a figure from the outside who is pure and immaculate and not part of the everyday bickering and horror.''

A poll by the Santiago firm Diagnos shows that 60 percent of Chileans hope the Pope will address political issues.

Chilean opposition groups and General Pinochet's government are all maneuvering to take advantage of the visit.

The Pope and Pinochet will meet three times, and the government is expected to use the state-controlled television media to publicize the meetings. The government will also emphasize its series of recent political reforms - voter registration, legalized political parties, the legal return of some exiles - to counter any possible criticism the Pope might level at Pinochet.

Most observers do expect the Pope to criticize the regime. The Chilean church itself has been the most organized opponent of the government - Juan Francisco Cardinal Fresno Larra'in openly backs the moderate opposition. Further, the church's human rights arm, the Vicariate of Solidarity, has been the target of government harassment.

But how the Pope criticizes Pinochet will determine the kind of political influence his visit has. Chileans ``both hope and fear'' the visit will be a turning point, said US Ambassador to Chile Harry Barnes last week at the University of Miami's Institute of Interamerican Studies.

Ambassador Barnes implied that strong criticism of human rights violations by the Pope and clear support for the church's role in promoting a transition to democracy could make it harder for Pinochet to keep resisting church and opposition demands.

On the other hand, there is concern about the great masses of people expected to be drawn to the streets during the Pope's visit. Public gatherings are usually squelched by authorities before they begin. Collective frustration over this could overflow and provide an opening for leftist-inspired violence. Any violent incidents could in turn reinforce Pinochet's argument for the need for strong military rule.

Though the Chilean portion of the 13-day South American tour promises to be the most controversial, political themes are also expected to dominate the Argentine leg of the trip.

The troubled Argentine economy, perhaps the biggest problem inherited from that nation's own period of military rule (1976-83), is expected to be the backdrop for a discourse on the theme of economic justice. This will be the Pope's first public statement on the issue since the February release of a Vatican report critical of international handling of third-world debt.

``You can expect him to hit the debt hard in Argentina. On this he's clearly left-of-center and very critical of the terms of the debt [set by international bankers] and its cost to human life,'' says Brian Smith, an associate professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Argentine church generally has backed the four-year-old democratic government of President Ra'ul Alfons'in. But the government's campaign to legalize divorce - supported by 66 percent of the population - has put it at odds with the church. Argentine Senate consideration of the divorce law, which successfully passed the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, in August, has been postponed by conservative members. They hope the Pope will speak against the bill and sway Senate sentiment, which now favors the bill.

The Pope is making his eighth visit to Latin America. It is a critical region to the church because, by the year 2000, there are expected to be more Catholics in Latin America than in the rest of the world combined. The Vatican has sought to bridge a growing distance between itself and the region, seen in the growth of Protestant fundamentalism and the independence of Catholic liberation theologians.

Protestant fundamentalism - which, according to specialists on the region, is viewed as more appealing because of its presentation of a more direct relation of man to God - has attracted about 10 percent of the population in Argentina and Chile. Some of the largest public gatherings of late include a Jimmy Swaggart meeting in Santiago and a Jehovah's Witnesses rally in Buenos Aires.

Latin America is a region in which the church has expressed great ambiguity under John Paul II, says Professor Smith, who is also a former priest in Chile and author of the book, ``Church and Politics in Chile.''

The Pope is ``bordering on Marxism on issues of economic justice,'' Smith says, noting that John Paul II has criticized multinational corporations and ``the imperialism of money'' for their effects on the poor. The Vatican's February report, he says, is the first time the church has spoken out officially on the debt.

But, Dr. Smith adds, the Pope is highly conservative when it comes to the Latin American movement of liberation theology. The movement - which claims a following of between 5 and 30 percent of Catholic laity and priests, depending on the country - aims to raise the consciousness of the poor through a combination of religion and radical politics. Some practitioners of liberation theology say that armed revolution is at times justified. The Catholic Church hierarchy considers the teachings of liberation theology as disobedience to the order of the church.

With his concern for the poor in economic terms, but his rejection of liberation theology's Marxist treatment of the poor, Smith says, the Pope's views can seem ``contradictory'' from a Latin American viewpoint.

Chile and Argentina have higher standards of living and larger middle-class populations than most Latin American nations. Thus the radical sectors of the church may have less support in those two countries than elsewhere in the region.

But Chile does have sectors of the church, often those working in poor shantytowns, that Pinochet claims are associated with radical, communist groups outside the democratic opposition. The regime often uses this association to justify harassment of the church as a whole.

Earlier this month, for example, Bishop Carlos Camus ignited a church-government dispute when he defended the morality of the leftist guerrillas who attempted to assassinate Pinochet last fall. While the government studied legal action against the bishop, whom it views as a supporter of terrorism, church leadership was qualifying the bishop's statements in order to tone down the controversy on the eve of the Pope's visit.


The Pope's 13-day tour is his eighth visit to Latin America. By the year 2000, there are expected to be more Catholics in this region than in the rest of the world combined.

On this visit, John Paul II faces difficult issues:

In Chile, the church and the regime are at odds over human rights violations and the church's support for the opposition.

In Argentina, the government is seeking to legalize divorce, which the church opposes.

Throughout the region, Protestant fundamentalism and Catholic liberation theology are challenging the traditional church's role in society.

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