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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (ChurchMilitant.com) - A social justice activist widely seen as a "friend" of Pope Francis has made demands for land on behalf of a group that may have been responsible for desecrating a Catholic church and beating a parish priest.
Leftist agitators vandalized a Catholic church in Argentina's interior, as well as beat the parish priest and kept him hostage at Our Lady of Lujan parish in El Bolson. The police chief of the small town in Río Negro province rushed to the scene from a Nov. 6 meeting with the governor, where they were discussing political agitation among native Mapuche people and activist squatters on private land in the Patagonian region.
The vandals left before police arrived, but five suspects were later arrested by local police, who identified them as members of Winkul Lafken Mapu – a leftist grouping of Mapuche native people who have made increasing demands for land redistribution while also squatting on private and public lands.
At the center of the dispute over land, poverty and unemployment is Juan Grabois, an activist who some have dubbed "an opportunist who hasn't worked a day in his life" and who "exploits the poor as human shields" for his political movement. He is often identified in Latin American media as a "friend of Pope Francis."
On its Facebook page, the Movement of Excluded Workers, founded by Grabois, asks that the Mapuche people receive title to 50,000 parcels of land for landless peasants, title to community-held land and green zones to be created around cities for producing food free of toxins, among other demands.
Following clashes between police and Mapuche occupiers over the last three years, which saw the police-shooting death of a Mapuche man, Argentina's federal government has responded to concerns by locals. They say property rights and the region's significant tourism are endangered by occupiers who have sometimes threatened others with firearms and violence.
Similar demands for land have been voiced in the provinces of Misiones, Corrientes and Entre Ríos in northern Argentina.
In a 2019 conversation with the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center, when an interviewer affirmed, "You are one of the voices of the pope in Argentina," Grabois said, "I have been told I am the pope's voice, [President Cristina de Kirchner's] voice; I speak with my own voice."
Grabois has been identified as a "friend" of Pope Francis, dating to the days when the former cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was archbishop of Buenos Aires.
Born in 1983 to Peronist student activists of the 1960s, Grabois trained as a lawyer with a Marxist bent and teaches at the University of Buenos Aires. Grabois founded the Movement of Excluded Workers in 2002 when Cdl. Jorge Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) was archbishop of Buenos Aires. The group reportedly brings together hundreds of cooperatives and workshops, 2,000 activists and 25,000 other adherents. Grabois and his organization have focused on the rights of the poor and the Mapuche people while exposing government and police corruption.
Grabois was critical of Cristina de Kirchner during her 2007–2015 term as president, but later appeared alongside her in 2018 when the fellow Peronist appeared in court to answer charges that she had stolen millions of dollars during her term in office. He supported the Peronists again in 2019, which brought Kirchner back to power as vice president. Under President Alberto Fernández, the Peronists have pursued a leftist and aggressive pro-LGBTQ, pro-abortion tack.
In 2007, Grabois sent Abp. Bergoglio a letter inviting him to an event dubbed "Toward a Society without Slaves or Excluded." The future pope told Grabois that he could not attend, but invited him to visit. This turned out to be a series of conversations that have continued into the current pontificate. However, Grabois has not revealed the content of those conversations.
In 2013, Grabois spoke at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences on "capitalism of exclusion, social peripheries and popular movements" as part of a workshop titled "The Emergency of the Socially Excluded," which was presided by Cdl. Peter Turkson. American economist Jeffrey Sachs, president of the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, was among the other speakers at the event. In what the conference dubbed a "scientific paper," Grabois writes:
The enthronement of profit as a measure of the global socioeconomic order, which Francis' lapidary statement characterizes as a true "cult of money," stands as the foundational cause of the extreme phenomena of social injustice that afflict our world and threaten human dignity. The destruction of the elementary perspective of having access to dignified technology and decent work is fundamentally due to a perverse system that distributes production and consumption guided exclusively by the imperative of profit. The suffering multitude of brethren who crowd the urban peripheries without the possibility of inserting themselves into the labor market is the uttermost manifestation of this true capitalism of exclusion.
In his paper, Grabois credited Pope Francis, who as Cdl. Jorge Bergoglio "constantly undertook work of accompanying not only slum-dwellers or suffering workers, but also their organizations and activists." Already as "Supreme Pontiff," the paper claimed, Francis urged "young people not to fall into selfish indifference — to make a mess — to fight against exclusion" without allowing themselves to be "manipulated or dragged into irrational violence while also giving prominence to excluded workers and their organizations."
Grabois said that Bergoglio "accompanied social struggles, sometimes with his silent presence, sometimes with homilies filled with hope, condemnation and engagement." Grabois expressed his admiration for Francis and expressed the hope that the current pontificate "will be a turning point in the downward spiral of social, environmental and moral degradation that we have been suffering ... ."
In 2016, Pope Francis named Grabois a consultor to the Pontifical Council of Justice and Peace.
In October 2020, Grabois appeared in a virtual conference organized by the Vatican and Cdl. Turkson. At the World Encounter of Popular Movements, Cdl. Michael Czerny asked the exponents to reflect on a series of questions posed by Pope Francis in Fratelli Tutti:
How much love did I put into my work? What did I do for the progress of our people? What mark did I leave on the life of society? What real bonds did I create? What positive forces did I unleash? How much social peace did I sow? What good did I achieve in the position that was entrusted to me?
For his part, Grabois said the logic of a "throwaway" culture identified by the pope must be addressed by "that invisible army that Francis values so much" and those who "share the longing for land, shelter and work," which he identified as "sacred rights."
He called on listeners to strengthen the bonds of "love of our peoples, the thirst for justice and the thought and example of all those who put their hands and hearts to this service. Francis is one of those who offers treasures in his homilies."
The conference offered a wide-ranging final document titled "The Economy of Francis," which — besides calling for stricter enforcement of environmental laws, the planting of trees, clean water for everyone — recommends "distribution of land to all those who want to work for it and impose a maximum size of agricultural property."
It also calls for establishing a "new international currency, issued by the United Nations, which is under the control not of any one nation, but of all countries. The dollar and the euro will no longer be able to be used in international transactions or as a source of speculation since they create international inequalities and favor speculative attacks against national currencies." The document recommends the world "forgive the external debts of the poorest countries and restructure the debts of the middle-income countries."
The Mapuche people are descendants of some of the original inhabitants of Chile and Argentina. In the latter, there are about 100,000 who speak the Mapuche language, of which most live in the Patagonian provinces of Chubut, Neuquén and Río Negro. The original inhabitants of Argentina were mostly nomadic and frequently clashed with Spanish and Argentine military and settlers. In the 1800s, punitive military expeditions killed many natives. Many, however, have merged into the general population of other Spanish-speakers.
The recent occupations and protests in Argentina have not yet reached the level witnessed in neighboring Chile. In August 2020, violence erupted in a town in the Araucania region when residents dislodged Mapuche protesters occupying several government buildings. The protesters had demanded redistribution of land owned by local and foreign corporations in the southern part of Chile. Chile's minister of interior called for calm.