Venezuela Catholic Church calls govt 'dictatorship'

Caracas (AFP) –


Venezuela's Catholic Church raised pressure on the leftist government Friday in a deadly political crisis, warning that its drive for constitutional reforms is turning the country into a "military dictatorship."

The plan "will be imposed by force and its result will be that constitutional status will be given to a military, socialist, Marxist and communist dictatorship," the head of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, Diego Padron, told a news conference.

An influential voice in Venezuela, the church has long had strained relations with President Nicolas Maduro, who is under mounting opposition and international pressure to hold early elections.

The center-right opposition accuses Maduro of maneuvering to cling to power against its demands for a vote on removing him.

It blames him for an economic crisis that has caused shortages of food and medicine. He says the crisis is a US-backed conspiracy.

- Pope's concern -

Catholic leaders tried last year to mediate negotiations between the government and opposition. The talks collapsed with the sides accusing each other of bad faith.

Pope Francis called this month for "an end to violence and a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis."

At least 91 people have died over the past three months in clashes with police during anti-government demonstrations, prosecutors say.

On Thursday, police chased protesters into a shopping mall and fired tear gas, leaving dozens injured.

The previous day, a pro-government mob wielding clubs burst into the grounds of the National Assembly legislature and beat lawmakers, leaving several bleeding.

Maduro has meanwhile infuriated his opponents by launching a plan to form an assembly tasked with rewriting the constitution.

Opponents say he will pack this "constituent assembly" with allies in a bid to cling to power.

Voting for members of the assembly is scheduled for July 30.

The opposition MUD coalition plans to hold its own popular vote against the plan on July 16. Padron said the church would make some of its premises available to carry out that vote.

Maduro retains the public backing of the military high command -- a key factor in keeping him in power, according to analysts.

But the president last month said he was replacing four senior commanders of the armed forces.

- Catholic country -

The highest official to defy Maduro is chief prosecutor Luisa Ortega.

She has launched legal challenges against the constitutional plan but the authorities responded by charging her with misconduct.

The Supreme Court, which the opposition says is stacked with Maduro's allies, is due to rule in the coming days whether to suspend Ortega from office and put her on trial.

A study by private polling firm Datanalysis indicated that 80 percent of Venezuelans disapproved of Maduro's leadership and 70 percent opposed his constitutional reform plan.

According to the latest data by polling group Latinobarometro, 79 percent of Venezuelans described themselves as Roman Catholic in 2013.

"There is no longer a conflict between left and right" in Venezuela, Padron said.

"There is a struggle between a government that has turned into a dictatorship and a whole people calling for liberty."