Pope Francis has said that he is willing to mediate between Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro and self-declared President Juan Guaidó, but only if both sides request his help.
Speaking to journalists on Tuesday aboard his plane returning from the United Arab Emirates, Francis confirmed that Maduro had written a letter to him, but said that he had not yet read it.
“I will read the letter and see what can be done, but the initial condition is that both sides ask for it,” he said. “We are willing.”
A day earlier on 4 February, a joint statement from the Venezuelan bishops, the Conference of Religious and the National Council praised the opposition demonstrators, called for an end to repression and offered to distribute food aid through Caritas Venezuela.
Without mentioning by name either President Maduro or opposition leader Juan Guaidó, the statement takes a clear stand in favour of "political, democratic change".
Launched at a press conference in Caracas chaired by the secretary general of the bishops’ conference, Bishop José Trinidad Fernández, the statement says: "In all the communities we serve, and in the whole national context, we are experiencing a painful situation of injustice and suffering for the lack of the necessities for a decent and productive life and the lack of defence against injustice.
"The increasing political repression, the violation of human rights and arbitrary and selective detentions are morally unacceptable. As citizens and servants of the communities, we call on the state security forces to cease their repression of their fellow Venezuelans and to accept their true responsibility to protect the people in all circumstances, particularly when they are exercising the right to peaceful protest.
"It is necessary for the Public Ministry and the People’s Defender to fulfil their primary duty, which is to be at the service of the people and for abuses of power to stop once and for all, especially the detention of minors. They must not fall into contradiction of the laws they profess to respect, and must feel themselves independent of any other public authority when they perform their duties."
The Church bodies express "recognition and thanks to the activists who defend and promote human rights in moments of crisis and tensions in the country…The Venezuelan people have woken up, they are on the streets because they long for a political, democratic change in the country. The marches of 23 January and 2 February are witness to the strength and perseverance of a people that, when it is called upon, responds positively to the aspiration for a better future in which life is not permanently at risk, but where there are opportunities for all-round human development and the revival of the values of peace, reconciliation and dialogue."
The statement appeals for permission to access humanitarian aid "to mitigate the impact of the crisis on the most vulnerable people", and pledges that Caritas Venezuela will distribute it "with fairness, inclusions, transparency and efficiency".
On Wednesday, Venezuelan soldiers were reported to have blocked a bridge on the border with Colombia ahead of a shipment of humanitarian aid from the US arranged by Guaidó, who declared himself President on 24 January.
He has since secured the backing of over 40 countries, including the US who stepped up their support on Tuesday by sending planes carrying humanitarian supplies to Colombia for distribution in neighbouring Venezuela.
Maduro has called on the military to turn back the US-backed aid, calling it a provocation designed to humiliate his country and his government.
Venezuela is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. Inflation is at one million per cent and basic goods are unaffordable.