ROME – Catholic bishops in Colombia led a day of prayer and fasting Friday after two weeks of protests against a government tax reform.

At least 37 people have died in confrontations between protestors and police in the South American country, with an additional 89 people listed as missing.

“We resolutely reject, regardless of their origin, human rights violations, acts of vandalism, blockades to mobility and the food supply, the disappearance of persons, attacks against the physical integrity of any person, and the destruction of public and private property,” the Colombian bishops wrote in a May 5 statement.

The prelates also said there is a right to peacefully protest and it is a valid way to achieve a response to social needs.

The unrest and its subsequent crackdown began after President Ivan Duque presented a tax reform initiative on April 15. On Monday, the conservative president withdrew the project and his Finance Minister resigned, but it did nothing to stem the protests.

As of late Friday, Colombia was shaken by widespread protests which have led to several regions facing shortages of fuel and other necessary goods.

Though the tax reform served as the match that lit the fire, many elements fueled the conflagration: Colombia is one of the most unequal countries the world, with an unemployment rate of 16.8 percent and 42.5 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

Duque has been powerless to address the unrest, and far from acknowledging the use of lethal force to stop the protests, he’s attempted to frame the protests as the work of “terrorists” from dissident rebel groups, including ELN, a Marxist group that refused to sign the peace accord Colombia forged with the larger militia, FARC, in 2016 putting an end to a 60-year-old civil.

Though few doubt the improvised nature of the protests at the beginning, and that there are thousands of Colombians who’re protesting both government corruption and police brutality, there are many reports of support from President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela.

A police officer winds up to throw a stun grenade at protesters during a national strike against tax reform in Cali, Colombia, Monday, May 3, 2021. Colombia’s President Ivan Duque withdrew the government-proposed tax reform on Sunday. (Credit: Andres Gonzalez/AP.)

President Lenin Moreno of Ecuador told the Argentina-based online newspaper Infobae that his country’s intelligence service “has detected political and economic interference by Maduro in Colombia.”

“I think it is important for the whole world to tell Maduro at this moment to get his bloody and abusive hands out of Colombia,” he said on Wednesday, during a forum on the defense of democracy in the Americas.

“Colombia is a wonderful country, in which, no doubt, there must be problems, no doubt there must be people who are complaining about that decision of President Duque. But we have to recognize the violence. And I would never want to interpret violence as social protest. Violence should not be part of international politics,” Moreno said.

In their message, Colombia’s bishops said that “violence, vandalism, aggressions, abuse of force and social chaos do not solve anything, as they only bring suffering and death, especially to the poorest, besides delegitimizing and rendering questionable any social protest.”

“We make this urgent and resounding call: Stop, for the good of all!” the bishops wrote. “The spiral of violence and the circle of death that is being promoted! It is time to undertake together the task of generating a model of integral human development.”

One of the cities most affected by the protests is Cali, the third most populous city in country. After weeks of road closures, the city is out of supplies. Security forces continue to clash with criminal groups that have infiltrated the original protesters.

Archbishop Dario Monsalve of Cali has created a humanitarian commission to “accompany the victims and their families in a humanitarian way,” while documenting the situations “in which human rights have been affected.”

The commission will accompany “the demonstrators in order to generate processes to guarantee humanitarian, health and food corridors” as well as “work towards reaching points of agreement that will allow a demonstration that continues to vindicate the rights [of the demonstrators] and protect the society that it intends to defend.”

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