Turmoil in Venezuela to vie for Pope's attention in Colombia

2017-09-01 08:20
Pope Francis. (Tiziana Fabi, Pool Photo via AP)

Pope Francis. (Tiziana Fabi, Pool Photo via AP)

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Bogota - The brick-built Centre for Migrants in Bogota opened its doors as a haven for families displaced by Colombia's then-raging internal conflict.

So as peace came within reach two years ago, its work seemed to be coming to an end and the Scalabrinian nuns contemplated shuttering the 25-bed shelter.

Now it's bursting at the seams again, this time due to a flood of Venezuelan refugees.

READ: Venezuela to stage war games in warning to Trump

The plight of so many struggling people from the neighbouring nation is likely to steal at least some of Pope Francis' attention when he arrives in Colombia on Wednesday.

While the trip is meant as a celebration of Colombia's historic peace deal with leftist rebels, pressure is building on the first Latin American pontiff to speak out against the Venezuelan government for the worsening turmoil in that country during his six-day visit.

Church friction

Whether it's running soup kitchens in poor barrios of Caracas or attempting to mediate a dialogue between the government and opposition, the Roman Catholic Church has gradually been drawn into Venezuela's crisis - frequently leading to clashes with supporters of President Nicolas Maduro and causing friction within the church hierarchy.

Venezuelan bishops are traveling to Colombia to meet with Francis during his visit, though it's not clear what he will say publicly or privately.

Sister Teresinha Monteiro, a Brazilian-born nun who runs the shelter in Bogota, said she hopes Francis will "interfere with the hand of God" to end Venezuela's social nightmare, which she expects will only worsen.

Her shelter, built 22 years ago, has never been busier and the nuns recently had to throw a dozen extra mattresses onto a conference room floor to accommodate the surge of Venezuelans, who make up all but two of the current 40 residents.

Unable to provide a roof for all the Venezuelans arriving in Bogota, she oversees volunteers who every day patrol Bogota's bus terminal, handing out kits of toiletries and bus fare to those with no place to go.

"You try to instil hope... but the situation is so critical," said Monteiro, who is taking a group of Venezuelan migrants to Francis' outdoor Mass in Bogota's Simon Bolivar Park on Thursday.

"Maduro on a whim wants to demonstrate that he's strong, the owner of the country, and doesn't care about anybody else."

Francis has repeatedly expressed concern about events in Venezuela and is kept briefed on the country's deteriorating political and economic situation by the Vatican's secretary of state, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, who was the papal ambassador in Caracas between 2009 and 2013.

But many in the Venezuelan opposition were sceptical of his offer in 2016 to sponsor dialogue with the government, seeing it as playing into Maduro's strategy of buying time, and felt validated when the talks broke down with little to show for them except briefly cooling a nationwide protest movement.

It didn't burnish the Holy See's claim to neutrality when pictures surfaced in March of Parolin's successor as nuncio, Monsignor Aldo Giordano, smiling alongside top officials while reportedly officiating at the wedding of the daughter of a pro-government supreme court magistrate who would later be sanctioned by the US for violating Venezuela's constitutional order.

Read more on:    roman catholic church  |  pope francis  |  venezuela

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