Priests have been threatened, liturgies have suffered violent disruptions, Church institutions have been unjustly accused of various offenses, and even some bishops have been defamed in public.
These are just some of the problems facing the Church in Venezuela, according to the Vatican’s chief diplomat to the United Nations.
Archbishop Bernardito Auza was speaking at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) taking place June 19-21 in Cancún, Mexico.
Venezuela has been besieged by a deep political crisis since President Nicolas Maduro moved to expand his power, including taking over the functions of the opposition-controlled congress and, more recently, pushing for the constitution to be reformed.
There have been violent clashes, leaving dozens of people dead and drawing international condemnation. The country has struggled with a deep economic recession and runaway inflation that has caused shortages of food and medical supplies.
Auza also said the decision by Maduro to call a national constituent assembly to rewrite the national charter “instead of helping to solve the problem, presents the risk of causing further complications, and jeopardizes the democratic future of the country.”
Auza repeated the Vatican’s insistence that the country needs to hold “direct, free, and transparent” elections, already scheduled to take place this year.
In Venezuela, the local bishops have become one of the steadiest voices against the government of Maduro, though by their own definition they’re not the opposition but standing with the people.
In response, gangs associated with the regime have disrupted Masses, vandalized churches, and interfered with the Church’s humanitarian agencies.
Maduro has even tried to drive a wedge between Pope Francis and the bishops, claiming the nation’s bishops were “ignoring” the pope in refusing to participate in his constituent assembly.
In a letter to the pope written last week, Maduro spoke of “actions of vandalism” by the “forces of darkness” that “yearn for a military intervention by the United States.”
The pope met with the bishops on June 8 in the Vatican, and told them they have his “full trust.”
The Vatican agreed last year to help facilitate a dialogue between the government and opposition, but in a letter sent by Vatican Secretary of State Pietro Parolin in December, a set of conditions were made for the dialogue to go forward: The creation of a humanitarian corridor, the recognition of the National Assembly, the release of the political prisoners, and resuming the electoral calendar.
None of these have been met by the government.
Auza reiterated these conditions, saying they serve “the sole purpose of promoting the good of each and every Venezuelan” and working for “a peaceful and democratic” solution to the current crisis.
He also raised the possibility that a regional group of countries – or even an intercontinental group – mutually agreed upon by the government and opposition, could “accompany” and “act as guarantors” to future negotiations.
Earlier this month, six former presidents of Costa Rica, Uruguay, Panamá, Colombia, and Bolivia wrote the Vatican expressing their concern over the situation in Venezuela.
Parolin replied, saying that Francis knew of the letter and its content, and that, to the best of his abilities, he’s “trying to help find a solution amidst the grave difficulties the county is experiencing.”
The cardinal told the former leaders the Vatican believes only “serious and sincere negotiations among the parties, based on very clear conditions, beginning with the holding of the constitutionally scheduled elections, could solve the grave situation of Venezuela.”