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Pope urges Venezuela’s bishops to stay close to suffering people

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Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY — While violent protests continue to break out in the streets of Venezuela, Pope Francis urged the country’s bishops to remain close to the poor and needy.

“My dear brothers, I encourage you to not allow the beloved children of Venezuela to be overcome by mistrust or despair, for these are the evils that penetrate people’s hearts when they do not see prospects for the future,” the pope wrote in a letter May 5 to the country’s bishops.

Demonstrators rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 3. Two days later, Pope Francis urged the country's bishops to remain close to the poor and needy. (CNS/ Reuters)

Demonstrators rally against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, May 3. Two days later, Pope Francis urged the country’s bishops to remain close to the poor and needy. (CNS/ Reuters)

Venezuela has descended into chaos after years of food shortages and economic turmoil under embattled President Nicolas Maduro’s government. Despite expressing a willingness to negotiate with the opposition, he has been accused of tightening his grip on power and suppressing any threat to his rule.

Protests began after March 29, when the Venezuelan Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the country’s parliament, in which the opposition had a two-thirds majority following the 2015 elections. The unprecedented ruling transferred legislative powers to the Supreme Court, which is comprised of judges nominated by Maduro.

Although the Supreme Court restored parliament’s authority after local and international outcry, protests against Maduro’s government continued to escalate.

Venezuela’s bishops have been vocal against the dire conditions and denounced the government’s attempts to change the constitution in order to remain in power, saying that the plan seeks to impose “a totalitarian, militaristic, police, violent and repressive system that has given rise to the evils suffered by our country today.”

“We make our own the pain of the Venezuelan people and say: ‘Enough of so much repression!’” the bishops said in a letter published May 5.

The bishops also called on the people to continue “to raise their voice in protest without falling into the game of those who, while generating violence, want to bring the country into greater confrontation in order to aggravate the situation and stay in power.”

According to Reuters, as of May 6 the protests had resulted the deaths of 37 people, including a 20-year-old demonstrator who was shot in the head.

In his letter to the bishops, Pope Francis said that he is “following the situation of the beloved Venezuelan people with great concern” and the rising numbers of people killed or wounded “do not help to solve the problems, but only provoke more suffering and pain.”

He thanked the Venezuelan bishops for their “continued call to avoid any form of violence, to respect citizens’ rights and to defend human dignity and fundamental rights.”

The pope also conveyed his solidarity with the nation’s priests, religious men and women and laypeople who “suffer for lack of food and medicine,” noting that “some even have endured personal attacks and violent acts in their churches.”

“I wish to express my solidarity with each of you and thank you for your closeness to the flock entrusted to you, especially with the poorest and neediest, as well as for your initiatives to promote solidarity and generosity among Venezuelans,” he said.

Calling on the nation’s bishops and clergy to continue promoting peace, Pope Francis urged them to remain united, adding that “communion among yourselves and your priests will enlighten them to find the right path.”

“I offer my prayers to the risen Lord so that he may pour upon you, my dear brothers, and over the beloved people of Venezuela his abundant Easter gifts of peace which he himself, victorious over death, granted the apostles, freeing them from all fear,” he said.

     

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Pope calls for peace and dialogue in Venezuela

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VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis called for an immediate end to violence in Venezuela, urging the government and citizens to begin talks and work for the common good.

“I have been following with particular concern what is happening in Venezuela of late,” he said at the end of his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square Feb. 26.

Demonstrators confront police during a protest against the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, Feb. 22. The country’s Catholic leaders urged dialogue and respect for the demonstrators’ human rights. (CNS photo/Carlos Garcia Rawlins, Reuters) (

“It is my fervent hope that the violence and hostilities end as soon as possible and that all Venezuelans, starting with political and government leaders, work to promote national reconciliation through mutual forgiveness and dialogue that is sincere and respectful of the truth and justice, capable of confronting concrete issues for the common good.”

The pope assured people of his prayers, especially for those who lost their lives and their families.

He also invited everyone to pray to Our Lady of Coromoto, patroness of Venezuela, for “peace and harmony” in this South American nation.

As protests in Venezuela continued, with flare-ups of violence, the country’s Catholic leaders urged dialogue and respect for the demonstrators’ human rights.

“We have called for the social and political leaders to engage in deep, sincere dialogue” to address the country’s serious problems, including high rates of violent crime and economic difficulties that have caused a scarcity of some basic consumer goods, Caracas Auxiliary Bishop Jesus Gonzalez de Zarate, secretary-general of the Venezuelan bishops’ conference, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.

In a statement issued Feb. 24, the bishops’ justice and peace commission and other organizations called for “urgent action to help guarantee human rights, justice and peace in Venezuela.”

Nearly two weeks of demonstrations by opponents and supporters of the government of President Nicolas Maduro left at least six people confirmed dead, according to the commission, although government officials put the toll at 13.

More than 530 people were arrested, according to the statement provided to CNS by Janeth Marquez, who heads the church’s social ministry office in Caracas, Venezuela. Government officials said most of those arrested had been released.

One of the detainees was Leopoldo Lopez, one of the more radical opposition leaders, who turned himself in Feb. 18 after government officials accused him of inciting violence and ordered him arrested.

Eighteen cases of torture and one rape also have been reported, according to the human rights groups’ statement.

The groups expressed concern about paramilitary groups allegedly aligned with the government, which have clashed with protesters, as well as about threats against and attacks on journalists and human rights defenders.

The justice and peace commission and other groups called for “the national and international community to question the human rights violations, demand action for an independent investigation, ask for an end to the crackdown and promote genuine dialogue.”

Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who lost the 2013 presidential election to Maduro, had said he would talk with Maduro at a meeting of government officials Feb. 24, but later decided to skip the meeting.

He has suggested that the church serve as mediator in talks between the government and the opposition. Bishop Gonzalez de Zarate said church leaders were open to the idea and that they had met Feb. 13 and 14 with student leaders from both sides.

Nevertheless, the bishop said, both sides would have to have an “authentic willingness to dialogue” and agree on an agenda of issues to be addressed.

Crucial concerns for Venezuelans, which underlie the protests, include the lack of public security, health care, quality education and “a social and political vision of the country,” he said.

The demonstrations began in San Cristobal, capital of the western state of Tachira, in early February, when an attempted rape prompted students to protest the lack of public security. They spread to other parts of the country, including Caracas, and turned violent on Feb. 12, Venezuela’s Youth Day.

San Cristobal, near the Colombian border, remained the scene of some of the fiercest demonstrations and crackdowns on protesters, and a large number of military troops have been sent to the town, Bishop Gonzalez de Zarate said.

On Feb. 14, Bishop Mario del Valle Moronta Rodriguez of San Cristobal urged dialogue and an end to the violence.

“In the name of the Lord Jesus, we call for an end to violence of all kinds, verbal, aggression, crackdowns, and we seek to show that we are ‘people of peace,’” he wrote in a message. “We deplore the deaths that have occurred during protests in various places in the country, as well as the fact that many people have been injured. We ask that those who have caused these deaths and personal harm accept responsibility and be punished according to the law.”

The bishop also called for “political, social, economic and student leaders to meet and share ideas and opinions in a quest for consensus and a path of peace for all.”

— By Carol Glatz and Barbara J. Fraser

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