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The Vatican calls on Venezuela to suspend its Constituent Assembly

Workers remove black wooden crosses, placed on a flag to remember the victims of violence, after a protest against Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro outside Our Lady of Coromoto Church in Caracas. (Tomas Bravo/Reuters)

For months, the Catholic Church has been taking on the Venezuelan government, chiding President Nicolás Maduro for his inability to protect his people.

Now, they're ratcheting up the rhetoric. In a strongly worded statement, the Vatican's secretariat of state made an urgent appeal to Venezuela's leaders to suspend the new Constituent Assembly, which was seated Friday. That body, made up of government loyalists, has been given the power to rewrite the Constitution. Maduro opponents worry that it might also dissolve the country's legislative body, currently controlled by the opposition.

The secretariat of state also warned that Maduro's tactics are fomenting conflict and threatening the future of the South American nation. The Vatican has “profound concern for the radicalization and worsening of the crisis,” the statement reads. The government must guarantee “full respect for human rights and basic freedoms, as well as for the existing Constitution.”

It's the latest in an increasingly contentious relationship between church leaders and Maduro.

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Venezuela is a religious country, and Catholicism is the dominant faith. About 70 percent of Venezuelans call themselves Catholic.

Former president Hugo Chávez counted himself among the faithful. Biographer Bart Jones wrote in the National Catholic Reporter that Chávez considered Jesus and the Bible core to his political formation. “Christ came to be born among the poorest of the poor, to look for the road of liberation,” Chávez told Jones, who went on to explain: “Chávez himself came from similarly poor roots. And he saw his mission in life as leading that liberation.”

The feeling wasn't mutual. Although many of Venezuela's poor Catholics supported Chávez, the church's leaders opposed his rise and reign. In 2002, the church participated in an unsuccessful coup against the popular socialist. (He repaid them by calling the bishops “devils in vestments.") The Church explained their antipathy in two ways, calling Chávez an undemocratic leader with a penchant for silencing opponents. The church also opposed any government efforts to intervene in the nation's 700 Catholic schools, which receive some state funding.

After Maduro took office, church leaders increased their attacks. In the past year, they've called on officials to release political prisoners like Leopoldo Lopez. Priests and bishops have spoken out against the months of street violence (more than 120 people have been killed this year during protests). In a 2016 speech, Archbishop Diego Padron drew connections between the country's economic collapse and the political system. Venezuela's 30 million people are suffering; many are starving and unable to access basic medicine. The country has suffered 700 percent inflation in 2017. The murder rate is one of the highest in the world.

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“We locate the root of such a tough crisis in the application of a failed political system they called '21st century socialism,' " Padron said, referring to Chávez's radical revamp of Venezuela's economy and political system. He and others have encouraged protesters to rebel peacefully and democratically.

Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, has criticized Chávez and Maduro's approach to government as “a system of domination, not a political system that has legitimacy to function in tranquility.” He called Maduro's government “a statist regime,” and “from there to dictatorship is just one step.”

That's led to a backlash by Maduro supporters, who've targeted churches and accused church leaders of being in bed with the elite and wealthy. “They are part of the right wing. They should take their seat as a political party in the opposition,” the Socialist Party's powerful No. 2, Diosdado Cabello, said, according to Reuters.

One time, a group of men in red shirts burst into a service at a church to denounce a priest for talking about politics and criticizing Maduro's government. Pro-government activists also protested Archbishop Antonio Lopez for saying that socialism had brought “misery.” Other incidents have been more violent. Caracas's main cathedral was stoned in the middle of the night. Masked assailants with rifles robbed and terrorized a group of monks at a Trappist monastery in Merida. A few months earlier, thugs beat and stripped some Catholic students.

“This list, in my opinion, shows they are not isolated events,” Padron told Reuters. “There must be a line, an order, to intimidate the church, to lower its discourse, to be silent. … The government's retaliation against the declarations of the Conference is intimidation.”