SANTIAGO, Chile -- Pope Francis will step into the middle of one of South America's longest-running conflicts Wednesday when he visits the largely indigenous Araucania region of Chile.
In the century and a half since they were conquered by Chile's military, the Mapuche people have continued to resist, demanding greater autonomy, legal recognition of their language and the return of their ancestral lands.
While the vast majority of the estimated 1.4 million Mapuche people are peaceful, some have at times employed violence in their fight.
In recent years, masked men have firebombed timber trucks and land owned by non-Mapuche people that they say is rightfully theirs, sometimes leaving pamphlets calling for Mapuche rights. They set fire to more than two dozen churches in 2016 and 2017, according to the Chilean prosecutor's office.
Three more churches were firebombed in Chile's capital, Santiago, on Friday. Leaflets dropped at the scene criticized the upcoming visit of Francis and called for a "free" Mapuche nation. No one took responsibility for the attacks, and authorities said they were unsure whether Mapuche activists were to blame.
Many view the pope's visit to Temuco, the capital of Araucania, as a sign of support for the tribe and its struggles. Francis has expressed solidarity with other indigenous groups. While visiting Bolivia in 2015, Francis apologized for the "grave sins" committed against native communities by the Roman Catholic Church during colonial times. The pope's familiarity with the region -- he was born in Argentina -- may also help explain his decision to visit Mapuche lands.
The pope will touch down in Temuco on Wednesday, celebrate Mass at the Maquehue air base and have lunch with a number of residents handpicked by local church leaders. Protests are expected outside the air base, which was built on land taken from the Mapuche.
While some in Chile complain about the Mapuche's tactics, many are sympathetic to their plight.
"These acts of force or political violence such as burning churches or trucks or even homes reflects that there is an open wound," said Jesuit priest Carlos Bresciani, who has lived for 15 years near Tirua, a traditionally Mapuche village.
The Mapuche famously resisted Spanish conquest during colonial times, using guerrilla warfare tactics to evade European fighters seeking to lay claim to their historic homeland in what is now Chile and Argentina. They eventually signed a treaty with the Spanish, becoming the first and only South American indigenous group whose sovereignty and autonomy the Spanish legally recognized.