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A giant pope to watch over Santiago?

Chileans dislike a plan to build a 40-foot-tall statue of Pope John Paul II. Some have dubbed it “Popesaurus.”

By September the mold was practically finished, but no one would have learned about it if the neighbors hadn't seen the pope's head peering over the street.

The public outcry was quick: the dean and students at the University of Chile, neighborhood organizations, architects, academics and even priests have spoken out against it; newspapers have been bombarded by letters and columns against what one paper calls the “Popesaurus”; students have organized protests; and the monument council called on the municipality to submit the project to its approval, which it finally did in mid-October.

“I don’t have anything against the pope. It’s not him that is controversial. The problem is that it is such a huge statue, and on top of that, financed by a private university. We feel invaded by their new building and their plans to destroy the park. They didn’t consult anyone, and now they are imposing their religious views on the rest of society,” said Carlos Araya, a recent graduate of the University of Chile’s Law School.

Critics dislike they way a private university was put in charge of changing the face of a traditional neighborhood because its friend the mayor asked it to, all in total secret. They say the plan violates urban regulations. Along with the new campus, a movie theater, a cultural center and three 19-floor apartment buildings will also be built facing the park.

Daniel Cordero, the sculptor, says that all of the fuss in unjustified. Statues are usually made bigger because the visual effect once installed makes them look smaller. Besides, he says, the statue will be placed 100 meters away from the school.

“This is the only country in the world where people are terrified of the size of a monument. Cities everywhere are famous for their big monuments. Mexico has four big statues of this pope, and there are more than 100 in the world,” he said.

About 70 percent of Chileans are Catholic, according to the 2002 census, but this particular pope is admired even by many non-Catholics for his mediation between Chile and Argentina in 1978, when both countries were on the brink of war over a territorial dispute.

If approved by the monument council, the statue would be installed in April, facing east toward the Andes mountain range that separates Chile and Argentina. “The pope’s merit is that he avoided a war with Argentina, a war in which an entire generation of youths from both sides of the Andes would have perished. Any monument is small for someone who accomplished such a feat,” said Daniel Cordero.

But however much John Paul II loved and admired, not even the Catholic Church wants this kind of monument. The president of the Bishops Conference, Monsignor Alejandro Goic, said he would have preferred another type of homage: “If you ask me, the best monument would have been scholarships for smart kids from poor families to go to the university.”