BARCELONA, Spain — Catholic clergy from Catalonia demanded the release of the region’s detained leaders and urged the Spanish government to resume “friendly negotiations and agreements.”

“We consider the imprisonment of Catalan government and national assembly members unjust and unfortunate, and we are saddened by the forced exile of the president and his advisers,” the 216 priests, religious and deacons said in an open letter.

“When at least 2 million Catalan citizens support their action, it seems clear to us that we are not facing criminal action by unscrupulous politicians, but (have) a serious political problem that demands courage and vision.”

The letter was circulated as up to 50,000 Catalans, many draped in the national flag, demonstrated in Brussels Dec. 7 in support of regional president Carles Puigdemont, who fled to the Belgian capital to escape arrest after Catalonia declared independence from Spain Oct. 27.

The letter said the need for “an adequate legal-political structure” to express the rights of minorities and small nations was recognized in Catholic teaching, adding that Spaniards and Catalans should all “try to understand the reasons people think and act as they do.

“Many Catalans want independence, and many also feel Spanish and want to remain in Spain — this is why we need to face the future in a spirit of dialogue and reciprocal trust, so both majority and minority rights are respected,” said the clergy, who came from Catalonia’s Barcelona and Tarrangona archdioceses, as well as the Jesuit, Franciscan, Claretian and other religious orders.

“We deeply regret all that has contributed to nurturing tension and aggression. A new agreement is needed to make coexistence possible, through friendly negotiations and agreements.”

Spain dissolved the Catalan parliament, and Puigdemont plans to run for a seat in parliament in the Dec. 21 elections. However, he is likely to be detained if he returns to Spain, where eight arrested Catalan ministers already face 35-years prison sentences if convicted on rebellion charges.

Catalonia, the wealthiest of Spain’s 17 autonomous regions, is home to 7.5 million people, with its own language and culture.