Venezuelan church leaders accuse Maduro government of coordinating attacks against clergy

(Reuters/Marco Bello)People attend a mass at a church in Santa Fe neighbourhood in Caracas, Venezuela February 12, 2017. Picture taken February 12, 2017.

Church leaders in Venezuela have accused President Nicolas Maduro's administration of coordinating attacks against Catholic priests after the Church spoke out against alleged government misconduct, human rights abuses and the delay of free elections.

In late January, a pro-government collective interrupted a Sunday Mass at San Pedro Claver church in Caracas and shouted insults at the priest. The collective then closed the church doors to prevent the parishioners from leaving as they went on to criticize the local priest.

The collectives, which are pro-government groups tasked with organizing community events and social projects, have been accused of intimidation and violence against those who oppose the government, according to Catholic Herald.

"They started to shout insults, then would be calm, and then they would shout again," said one parishioner who has attended the church for 20 years.

"These were aggressive people, with aggressive vocabulary, using profanity, and they said all kinds of vulgarities; we felt very attacked," she added.

There has been some speculation from church leaders that the attacks could be a part of a broader, coordinated campaign.

"These are not isolated events and sometimes we even ask ourselves to what extent this is a systematic campaign," said retired Archbishop Ramon Ovidio Perez Morales of Los Teques, a town just outside Caracas.

Weeks before the incident in the Caracas church, a number of young seminarians were beaten up and stripped in Merida, in the Venezuelan Andes.

"This is all part of a general policy of confrontation with the Church. Specifically, it's against the Venezuelan episcopal conference, and it's nothing new," said Morales.

The relationship between the bishops and the government have been tense since Hugo Chavez was elected in 1999. The Church had attempted to act as a mediator between the government and the political opposition last year. But the short-lived talks collapsed with both sides blaming each other and the Vatican also receiving some backlash for its failure.

Venezuela has faced an increase in violent crime since Maduro took office in 2013. The president's opponents, including Venezuelan Bishops, have accused the government of using its power to jail protesters and circumvent elections.

Church leaders, including Morales, have frequently rebuked the government for advancing its socialist agenda. The government, on the other hand, have accused the Church of representing elite interests and the status quo at the expense of the country's poor.

Morales, the former president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, said the Church will not remain silent in the face of human rights abuses allegedly committed by the government.

"Morally, I cannot accept the violation of human rights. I can't accept that the state considers itself the owner of persons," he said in an interview with Union Radio last month.

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