Pope asked to intercede in Venezuelan hunger strike

Pope Francis has been asked to intercede in Venezuela’s growing political crisis by pressing President Nicolás Maduro to engage in dialogue with opposition leaders, several of whom are in prison and two weeks into a hunger strike.

The Pope and Mr Maduro are due to meet in Rome on Sunday amid concerns that jailed opposition figures led by Leopoldo López are beginning to develop serious health problems as a result of their fast. In all, five imprisoned politicians are on hunger strike, as well as at least a dozen supporters around the country.

Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader who was narrowly defeated by Maduro in the presidential election held after the death of Hugo Chávez in March 2013, wrote a letter to Pope Francis urging the pontiff to “help Venezuelans find the path to dialogue with the government”.

Mr Capriles blamed Mr Maduro’s socialist administration for allowing the country to spiral into chaos marked by food shortages and a huge increase in violent crime.

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Lilian Tintori, who has led a public campaign for the release of her husband Mr López and 74 others arrested after anti-government protests last year, said Mr Maduro’s meeting with the pope was a “historic” opportunity to end what she described as a “humanitarian crisis”.

Mr López, the leader of the Popular Will opposition party, announced he had started a hunger strike on May 24 to demand that a date be set for free and fair parliamentary elections. Daniel Ceballos, an imprisoned former mayor of the city of San Cristóbal and a party colleague of Mr López, entered the third week of his hunger strike on Friday.

Supporters and relatives said that the former mayor has an infected kidney and is using a wheelchair. Mr Ceballos, they say, is only drinking three glasses of water a day in a cell where the temperature reaches 33ºC.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN commissioner for human rights said on Wednesday that he was “very concerned about the conditions of detention and the deteriorating health” of Mr Ceballos.

Supporters of the hunger strikers are calling on Venezuelans to fill churches across the country in a prayer vigil on Saturday, shortly before Mr Maduro and Pope Francis are due to meet.

Mr Maduro previously visited Pope Francis in the Vatican two years ago in an attempt to improve relations between Venezuela and the Catholic Church, damaged during Chávez’s 14-year rule. The Argentinian pontiff then urged the Venezuelan leader to dialogue with the opposition led by Mr Capriles, who disputed the legitimacy of the 2013 election.

When Pope Francis was chosen, Mr Maduro said that the spirit of Chávez may have played a role in the election of the first Latin American pontiff.

“We know that our commander ascended to the heights and is face-to-face with Christ,” Mr Maduro said at a Caracas book fair. “Something influenced the choice of a South American pope, someone new arrived at Christ’s side and said to him: ‘Well, it seems to us South America’s time has come’.”



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