Pope Francis on Sunday reiterated his call for an end to the violence in Venezuela, which has recently seen at least 80 people killed in anti-government protests.
Francis’s words came at the end of his weekly Sunday Angelus, where he led thousands gathered in the square to pray for the country, which will mark its independence on Wednesday.
“I assure this dear nation of my prayers, and express my closeness to the families who have lost their children in the street protests,” Francis said. “I appeal for an end to the violence and for a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis.”
The anti-government protests erupted three months ago, when President Nicolas Maduro called for a Constitutional Assembly to re-write the constitution.
Four people were killed, and at least eight more were injured on Saturday, according to local authorities.
The pope’s words came during his first public appearance since meeting with his representative in the country, Archbishop Aldo Giordano, who was in Rome this week to update the Vatican on Venezuela’s situation.
Speaking to Vatican Radio, Giordano said that Francis is “particularly worried that violence not be used” during the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela.
Giordano told Vatican Radio he informed the pope about what is happening on the ground, including the lack of food and medicine.
“Unfortunately, we can’t yet see any light, but the Pope has been encouraging us to find paths of solidarity, ways of giving hope to the people, maintaining faith and also reiterated that the Holy See is available to offer help if new possibilities of some kind of negotiation come up, or when there is an authentic will to tackle the problem,” Giordano said.
Other Church officials also have stressed the severity of the Venezuelan crisis. For instance, talking to Crux on Saturday at the Convocation of Catholic Leaders taking place in Orlando, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami said: “If we don’t act now, Venezuela could become the Syria of Latin America.”
The archbishop also warned about a possible civil war if the crisis is not resolved soon.
Last year, the Vatican took part in a short-lived dialogue between the government of Nicolas Maduro and the opposition, which controls the legislative assembly. By remaining neutral, the Church hoped a deal could be brokered between both sides.
In December, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State and former papal representative in Venezuela, sent a letter outlining what the Church saw as preconditions for dialogue: Allowing humanitarian aid to reach those who need it, the recognition of the National Assembly, the release of political prisoners, and allowing elections.
Since then, Parolin has doubled-down on that message, insisting that the only solution to the current crisis, which has led Venezuelans to drop 17 pounds on average in the past year, is to call for elections.
The talks quickly went nowhere: Political prisoners haven’t been released, and the humanitarian crisis has spiraled down since then, with little to no foreign aid being allowed in.
Speaking with reporters after meeting with the pope last month, Archbishop Diego Padrón, President of the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference, said that today, basic goods such as medicine and food are being brought into the country by the bishops and charitable institutions such as Caritas, through pieces of luggage which are sent to the bishops’ conference, and from where they’re relayed to hospitals and those in need.
The Catholic bishops in the country have long opposed the authoritarian actions by the government. In retaliation, the para-military groups loyal to Maduro have attacked churches, bishops and priests. Masses have been interrupted by these pro-government militants.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.