By Carlos Camacho
CARACAS -- Attacks against the Catholic Church in Venezuela are growing in number and intensity, the church said Monday.
During Sunday mass in Caracas, a Chavista biker gang interrupted the service, sequestered the flock and forced them to listen to a pro-government tirade, days after Vatican-brokered talks between the embattled government of Nicolas Maduro and the opposition broke down.
Monsignor Diego Padron, president of the Venezuelan Episcopalian Conference, said during a radio interview Monday morning that the attacks were not isolated incidents but events “staged to intimidate”.
“These events, you have to really look at them with precaution and care because I am under the impression that they are no longer isolated events, like they use to say in police jargon,” Monsignor Padron said during Monday’s emission of “The Union is the Strength”, a radio show conducted by opposition politician Jesus “Chuo” Torrealba. “There seems to be some line, or element unifying (the events). And we have to denounce it, because if we do not denounce it, the alarm will not reach the people. It is necessary that our Catholic people, that the religious people, are aware of this situation”.CHAVISTA MASS IN “SAN PEDRO CLAVER”
Meanwhile, Sunday afternoon, in a pro-government section of Caracas, an armed band took over the San Pedro Claver Church during mass in the “23 de Enero” neighborhood. “Chavismo” and that section of Caracas have a long story: in 1992, when his coup attempt failed, Chavez took refuge in what was then the Army Museum. He surrendered there and was spared. The building is home to the Chavez mausoleum, since 2013, and it has its own chapel, where images of Chavez are venerated and candles lit to them.
On Sunday, however, the “chavistas” decided to go one step further: they shut down the Church’s gates, prevented the flock from leaving and forced them to listen to a political speech, according to local and social media.
Monsignor Jesus Gonzalez de Zarate had to negotiate with the occupiers before they left, the opposition organization MUD reported.CHURCH VS CHAVISMO
Venezuela is a predominantly Catholic country. Pope John Paul II visited several times, in the 1980’s and 1990’s. One of the largest shows of Catholic faith in the hemisphere, the “Divina Pastora” procession, takes place in Venezuela every January and is considered second only to the “Virgen de Guadalupe” celebrations in Mexico.
Venezuelans have figured prominently in Catholic hierarchy: two current members of the Cardinal’s College, the organization that elects Catholic Popes, hail from the oil-rich country, with the second Venezuelan Cardinal, Monsignor Baltazar Porras, having been appointed very recently, in October 2016.
Cardinal Porras has been critical of the Maduro administration, as well as that of Maduro’s predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez. However, when Chavez was deposed for 72 hours in a coup in 2002, Porras interceded and the imprisoned President’s life was spared, which allowed Chavez to maneuver a comeback.
The relationship between Chavez and the Catholic Church was always a strained one.
While the late President insisted he was a practicing Catholic, he divorced twice. And Church hierarchy often pointed out to him, publicly, that his socialist policies and Catholic teachings were in contradiction. Chavez famously retorted calling critical priests “devils in cloth”, “clowns of the Empire (USA)” and, when news arrived of the death of Venezuelan Cardinal Ignacio Velasco, the late President sent him off with the phrase: “See you in hell, Monsignor.”
After Chavez’s words on television back then, Velasco’s wake procession was attacked by a pro-Chavez mob, less than one year after Porras helped Chavez stay alive.RECENT ATTACKS
Maduro sought out the Catholic Church in October 2016 after his government unconstitutionally cancelled the Recall Referendum mounting against him raised the country's ire to boiling point. In a surprise visit, Maduro stopped at the Vatican to ask the Church to sponsor a round of dialogue meetings with the opposition. The church not only agreed but even sent a special envoy asking the Opposition to put off an irate march against the government while tempers were high over the Chavista regime's scrapping of the constitutional way out of the crisis.
However, the temporary respite in Church-Chavismo relations was not meant to last. The dialogue crumbled in January, after the government fulfilled none of the their promises reached after months of talks.
Shortly afterwards, the present wave of attacks began, and it was more intense than anything Venezuela has seen since the Federal Wars of the 19th Century.
The 352-year old Cathedral of Caracas, the seat of the city’s Archdiocese, was itself vandalized last week, according to the Venezuelan Episcopalian Conference.
The first serious attack this year came on January 18th, when the Archbishop of Barquisimeto was placed under siege by a pro-Government mob that hurled anti-Catholic slurs as well as offense aimed at Archbishop Antonio Jose Lopez Castillo. Archbishop Lopez had publicly criticized the Maduro administration in a sermon only days before, during the yearly parade of “La Divina Pastora” in Barquisimeto.