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Pope Francis Apologizes for Church’s Colonial Sins

During a speech on Thursday before the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized directly for the “grave sins” committed by the church in service of colonialism, building on the penance of the pontiffs who preceded him.

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During a speech on Thursday before the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized directly for the “grave sins” committed by the church in service of colonialism, building on the penance of the pontiffs who preceded him.

“I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native people of America in the name of God,” he said, as reported by the New York Times. “I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

The church was intertwined with the Spanish colonial regime in Bolivia, which forced tens of thousands of indigenous workers and African slaves to toil in mines, such as the famous silver mines in Potosí, under hideous conditions.

In 2000, Pope John Paul II began a new a new era in the church’s relationship to its history when he donned mourning garments to apologize for millennia of grievous violence and persecution — from the Inquisition to a wide range of sins against Jews, nonbelievers, and the indigenous people of colonized lands  — and sought pardon “for the divisions among Christians, for the use of violence that some have committed in the service of truth, and for attitudes of mistrust and hostility assumed towards followers of other religions.”

“Never again,” he said.

While John Paul delivered his speech from the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Francis spoke in Bolivia, an indigenous-majority nation, in front of marginalized workers and activists who fight for them. And he spoke in the context of acknowledging that he still sees colonial forces at work in the world. “The new colonialism takes on different faces,” he said. “At times it appears as the anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain ‘free trade’ treaties, and the imposition of measures of ‘austerity’ which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.”

Leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales once described his presidency as the end of the country’s “colonial and neoliberal era,” and he has been critical of the church, ending its role in state ceremonies. “For the first time, I feel like I have a pope: Pope Francis,” he said yesterday. But interactions between the leaders weren’t perfectly smooth: The pontiff was displeased when Morales gave him a large hammer and sickle crucifix.

Francis has made efforts to appeal to Latin America’s indigenous communities throughout his eight-day trip in the region, wearing vestments embroidered with local designs and sipping coca tea, a local tradition criminalized internationally. He is set to leave Bolivia for Paraguay on Friday.

Theodoor de Bry/Historia Americae sive Novi Orbis, 1596

Benjamin Soloway is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @bsoloway

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