Two churches were torched as tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered Sunday in a central Santiago square to mark the anniversary of a protest movement that broke out last year demanding greater equality in Chile.

The demonstration comes just a week before Chileans vote in a referendum on whether to replace the dictatorship-era constitution -- one of the key demands when the protest movement began in October 2019.

Demonstrators set a police vehicle on fire during clashes between security forces and protesters marking the first anniversdary of Chile's social unrest over inequality Demonstrators set a police vehicle on fire during clashes between security forces and protesters marking the first anniversdary of Chile's social unrest over inequality Photo: AFP / Martin BERNETTI

While the morning brought a largely festive atmosphere to the protests at Plaza Italia, there were several incidences of violence, looting and vandalism in the afternoon.

One church close to Plaza Italia was burned to the ground as hooded protesters cheered, while a second place of worship was looted and also suffered fire damage.

Demonstrators set a police vehicle on fire during clashes between security forces and protesters marking the first anniversdary of Chile's social unrest over inequality Demonstrators set a police vehicle on fire during clashes between security forces and protesters marking the first anniversdary of Chile's social unrest over inequality Photo: AFP / Martin BERNETTI

Firefighters managed to get that blaze under control.

"Burning churches is an expression of brutality," said Minister of the Interior and Security V?ctor Perez, adding that the violence was coming from a "minority" of protesters.

Firefighters work outside the burning church of Asuncion after it was set on fire by demonstrators in Santiago Firefighters work outside the burning church of Asuncion after it was set on fire by demonstrators in Santiago Photo: AFP / MARTIN BERNETTI

The small Church of the Assumption, which was totally destroyed, is known as the "artists' parish," according to local press. The building dated back to 1876.

There were clashes between groups of football hooligans in one Santiago neighborhood, while protesters in Plaza Italia doused a statue with red paint.

Demonstrators start a fire inside the San Francisco de Borja church in Santiago, Chile Demonstrators start a fire inside the San Francisco de Borja church in Santiago, Chile Photo: AFP / MARTIN BERNETTI

The communist mayor of a neighborhood near the central square, Daniel Jadue, was hounded out of Plaza Italia by protesters.

Yet it was a different feeling in the morning when demonstrators, many wearing masks to protect against the coronavirus pandemic, held up banners, sang and danced. Police even gradually pulled back from the Plaza Italia.

The spire of the Church of the Assumption collapses after severe fire damage The spire of the Church of the Assumption collapses after severe fire damage Photo: AFP / CLAUDIO REYES

"It's great, very good and positive," demonstrator Viviana Donoso, 43, told AFP as she and a group of people danced to drums.

"The people of Chile need to unite, and we have to believe that we can do things."

Demonstrators also called for their countrymen to vote to "approve" the proposed constitutional change.

"This is the opportunity to say 'enough!' We're here and we're going to vote for 'Approve,'" Paulina Villarroel, a 29-year-old psychologist, told AFP.

The deadly outbreak has killed 13,600 Chileans, with more than 490,000 infected.

Protests broke out a year ago initially as a response to a hike in metro fares, before mushrooming into a general demonstration against inequality and the government.

On one night of unrest, a dozen metro stations were set ablaze, bus stops were smashed, supermarkets looted, buildings vandalized and protesters clashed with riot police who fired tear gas and used water cannons.