Pastor dies of COVID-19 amid Chile church service controversy

Santiago (AFP) –


An evangelical bishop has died of COVID-19 in Chile after presiding over a service attended by hundreds of people, as criticism mounts against those keeping churches open.

Mario Salfate, 67, died late Tuesday in a Santiago hospital after being admitted on March 23 "when he tested positive for COVID-19," hospital officials said.

A week earlier the pastor had presided over a service that drew around 300 people to his church in Paine, outside Santiago.

Three other evangelical pastors who participated in the service later tested positive for the coronavirus.

Salfate's death comes amid growing controversy in the South American country over insistent calls from evangelical pastors to maintain religious gatherings in defiance of coronavirus-related restrictions.

Authorities are anxious to curb church gatherings which are being held in defiance of rules mandating that non-essential businesses remain closed.

Chilean authorities have also implemented a nightly curfew as well as a selective quarantine in areas with a high incidence of infection and have placed an emphasis on controlling the pandemic by mass screening.

So far, more than 8,000 people have tested positive, with more than 90 deaths.

Images posted on social media showed dozens of people, including children and the elderly, attending a service last weekend in a Santiago suburb, during which no one wore masks or took other precautions.

Health authorities said another evangelical pastor held a service in Santiago knowing he was infected with the coronavirus. Prosecutors have charged him with failing to respect an obligatory quarantine for all positive cases.

One prominent pastor meanwhile called on his followers to congregate, urging them to "not stay at home like a band of cowardly rats hiding in their lair."

The evangelical movement has taken root across traditionally Catholic Latin America, and the churches in Chile -- where Catholicism was hit by a series of sex abuse scandals -- claim three million members.