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Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB


Abbot Peter NovecoskyA clash of values

Venezuela was in the news last year for its deteriorating economy and food riots. 

Recently the Venezuelan government has attacked Catholics, marking a deterioration of relations between the church and the national government. Some church leaders have openly speculated that the events could be part of a broader, co-ordinated campaign, a Catholic News Service article has reported. 

The claim was made by retired Archbishop Ramon Ovidio Perez Morales of Los Teques, a town just outside of Caracas. 

At San Pedro Claver Church in Caracas in late January, a pro-government collective crashed Sunday mass and shouted insults at Rev. Angel Tornero before closing the doors, standing up near the altar and prohibiting parishioners from leaving, while further criticizing the local priest. 

Collectives are pro-government groups that organize community events and social projects, but they also have been accused of intimidation and violence against those who oppose the government. 

“They started to shout insults, then would be calm, and then they would shout again,” said Maria Cisneros, who has attended the church for 20 years. She requested her real name not be used out of fear of retaliation. 

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

Another churchgoer who witnessed the event said the group of people, estimated at a couple of dozen, shouted “devil in a cassock” and “fascist” at the priest. She said they claimed the priest had used the pulpit to criticize the government. 

Some weeks before the incident in the Caracas church, several young seminarians were intercepted by unknown men, beaten up, and stripped, in Merida, in the Venezuelan Andes. 

“This is all part of a general policy of confrontation with the church,” said Morales. “Specifically, it’s against the Venezuelan episcopal conference, and it’s nothing new.” 

The bishops’ conference and Venezuelan government have had a tense relationship since the arrival of President Hugo Chavez in 1999. Trust between the two sides appeared restored late last year when the government agreed to sit down with the political opposition in a dialogue process accompanied by the Vatican. 

But the short-lived talks later collapsed, with each side blaming the other for its failure and the Vatican also receiving part of the blame. 

The church criticizes the government for wanting to impose a socialist and communist regime, saying this is the principal cause of the country’s crisis.

Government leaders in turn accuse the church of representing elite interests and the status quo, to the detriment of the country’s poor. 

A year ago Venezuela experienced food riots and starvation. Its economic crisis was sparked by a combination of dropping oil prices and a mismanaged economy. Runaway inflation was forecast to reach 700 per cent by the International Monetary Fund.

Reuters news service reported that some parents were giving away children they could no longer afford to feed or care for. Mothers and fathers left their children with neighbours who were in more fortunate circumstances.

One mother asked a neighbour to take care of her six-year-old daughter in October. “It’s better that she has another family than go into prostitution, drugs or die of hunger,” the mother explained. 

Meanwhile, Tornero has left San Pedro Claver Church and returned to his native Peru after 22 years in Caracas. Parishioners say he continued to receive threats and insults following the January confrontation and left out of fear for his safety.

Since the church confrontation, mass has continued regularly without similar disturbances. Those who lived through the frightening experience hope the peace continues. 

It’s obvious there is a clash of values between the church and state in Venezuela. It’s not unlike similar clashes in other countries, including Canada.

Most recently, it’s the Canadian government’s decision to give $650 million over three years for “sexual and reproductive health and rights” for developing countries that church leaders are calling “reprehensible,” as reported in this issue. The money will be used to fight anti-abortion laws in many countries, reports indicate.

The church’s voice may not be heard, but who else is voicing opposition?