ROME – Catholic bishops in Venezuela are raising their voices to defend two of their brother prelates, accused by President Nicolas Maduro of promoting hatred in homilies they delivered on the Feast of the Divine Shepherdess, Jan. 14, a popular Marian feast day in the country.
Pope Francis too showed his support, in the form of a private phone call to at least one of the bishops.
A day after the feast, as Maduro was addressing Venezuela’s Constitutional Assembly, he asked the country’s Supreme Court of Justice, Comptroller’s Office and Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate both the Archbishop of Barquisimeto, Antonio López Castillo, and the Bishop of San Felipe, Víctor Hugo Basabe, for “hate crimes.”
In their homilies, made available by the Venezuelan Bishops’ Conference on Facebook, the prelates demanded an end to both hunger and corruption, which have plagued the country in recent years.
“Let us not choose the path of those who deny that in Venezuela there is hunger and malnutrition,” Basabe said in his homily, listing many of the issues about which the local church has been outspoken.
In context, the language about denial came off as a clear reference to Maduro, since he and his allies have insisted that the extent of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis has been exaggerated by critics of the regime both at home and abroad.
Basabe urged the creation of humanitarian corridors to allow food and medicine to reach those who need it. He called Catholics “to avoid following the path” of those who deny the problem “although they see it with their own eyes, that thousands of Venezuelans seek to eat in the trash.”
There are “those who insist on saying that in Venezuela everything is fine and we have food to feed multiple nations, when the great truth is that Venezuela increasingly lacks everything and especially food,” he continued.
“Those (people) are determined not to understand that the root cause of Venezuela’s ills is the persistence of a political, economic and social model that denies God and therefore human dignity,” Basabe said.
López Castillo’s homily was similar both in tone and content.
According to Maduro, the homilies were proof that the “devil comes in a cassock to call for violent confrontations, to call for civil war” — an accusation both bishops swiftly denied.
“Mr. Maduro has put in my mouth words I never said,” Basabe said. “What’s worse is he accuses me of committing a crime while he commits one himself.”
Maduro wants the bishops charged under a hate crime law drafted by the replacement legislature his political allies established by referendum in the face of protests and boycotts.
Castillo told reporters the day after Maduro’s request that the prelates be investigated, that he had received a phone call of support from Pope Francis, who was in Chile at the time.
“The pope supports us, as he supports the entire people of Venezuela,” Castillo said, according to several news reports.
Ever since, several dioceses and religious bodies have shown support for the two bishops, either through written statements or when talking to the media.
For instance, Auxiliary Bishop Mario Moronta of Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, said that Maduro’s call to investigate the bishops’ words is an attack against the entire Church.
The presidential accusations “go against the entire Catholic Church, because we’re not a body of isolated people,” Moronta said in a radio interview. According to the bishop, it’s “unnecessary to investigate” because the homilies have been made available and in no way do they represent an “invitation to violence.”
According to Basabe, Maduro’s response to the homilies is a sign of guilt.
“I knew that my words would upset those who deep down in their consciences know they are responsible for the tragedy that this people whom I love is going through,” he said. “Here I am in my own church with my only weapons: my faith in Christ and the certainty that my life is in his hands. [My fate] is up to those who will not be pardoned by conscience or history.”
Venezuela has long been immersed in a political and economic crisis, with an inflation rate of 2,500 percent last year. People scavenge garbage seeking food, and Caritas Venezuela has announced that it would have to cut down medical aid because of shortages in drugs, food and other goods.
There’s also a growing spirit of lawlessness in parts of the country, with Caracas often ranked as the city with the world’s highest murder rate, with 130.35 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2016.
On Jan. 23, Venezuela’s Constitutional Assembly decreed that presidential elections scheduled for late 2018 will now take place before April, virtually ending a dialogue between the government and the opposition in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic.
Maduro has announced he’ll be the only candidate for his Socialist Party, which was headed by Hugo Chavez until his death in 2013.
Through their Facebook page, the bishops’ conference of Venezuela shared close to 20 messages of support for the two accused bishops, coming from many Catholic actors.
Among them was Cardinal Baltazar Porras Cadozo of Merida, Venezuela, who was created a cardinal by Francis.
Porras issued his statement after a meeting with his diocesan clergy, and they agreed to speak out in defense of the two “highly respected bishops,” who, with a “prophetic voice and as apostles of truth, denounced in their homilies” the “critical and regrettable situation that today and for several years all Venezuelans suffer.”
The president of the conference also released a statement, promising the bishops the support of Venezuela’s “pilgrim church” against any action that puts their lives or freedom of thought and action at risk.
The conference of Latin American bishops, CELAM, also sent a message of support, using a passage from the Gospel of Matthew as a headline: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.”
CELAM expressed its support not only to the bishops, but also to the Venezuelan people as a whole, amidst the “grave humanitarian crisis” affecting the nation.
“With its consequences of hunger, malnutrition, lack of medicines and medical supplies, together with serious violations of human rights, which have deteriorated the quality of life and generated an unprecedented exodus of millions of Venezuelans, who have been forced to migrate to other countries in search of exits and better opportunities,” the CELAM statement said.
It also praises the Venezuelan bishops for their “brave and heartfelt homily,” saying its content corresponds with reality and is within the Church’s “prophetic perspective.”
“You’re being accused of promoting hatred and violence,” the leadership of CELAM wrote. “It is logical that those who do so have not understood the density of the message that arises from the Gospel. However, the risks of the prophet have to be assumed with faith and that you’re acting in the name of the Lord.”