In yet another attack on the Catholic faithful, socialist colectivo gangs stormed the Carmen Church in Caracas, Venezuela, on Sunday, holding Archbishop of Caracas Jorge Urosa Savino and hundreds of worshippers hostage for hours.
While the church was not involved in Sunday’s referendum asking Venezuelans whether they support socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro’s plan to draft a new constitution, its locale near a polling station attracted the violent gangs. A large number of Catholics had congregated at that church Sunday to observe the feast day of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, estimated to be between 200-400 people.
According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, the colectivo gangs had congregated before the polling station and began shooting at the crowd waiting in line to vote and detonating tear gas canisters. As many of those on the line fled into the church, the gang members then turn their fire onto the church. Urosa Savino remained in the church following the traditional Mass and in anticipation of the annual procession through the streets carrying the virgin. He and the hundreds who had gathered for the event remained trapped in the church for hours, however.
In a statement on Facebook, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference (CEV) reiterated that the church was not a polling station and had nothing to do with the political event that the colectivos intended to attack. The statement adds that, following the flight of voters into the church, “the violent group continued to assault those taking refuge in the Church and the doors had to close to protect them. The attackers prevented anyone taking refuge in the church from leaving.”
Urosa Savino was the last to leave the church following the conclusion of the assault, the CEV notes in their statement. The statement says Urosa Savino “totally rejects the attack by armed groups against citizens who were pacifically participating in the referendum regarding the Constituents’ Assembly as well as the attack on all who were in the church.”
The Archbishop also “demands the government grant priests, deacons, and laypeople working with dedication and generosity … police security, and that violence against the Venezuelan people cease absolutely.”
The anti-socialist opposition organized Sunday’s vote, a three-question referendum that asked citizens at home and abroad whether they supported the “Constituent Assembly” meant to draft a new constitution, whether they supported the use of military to protect opposition members of the legislature, and whether the country should hold presidential elections between now and 2019. 98 percent of those who voted said “yes” to all three questions.
The attack on the church Sunday is the latest in a string of such incidents targeting the Catholic church. In January, colectivos stormed Caracas’ San Pedro Claver Church and forced the priest to stop his sermon, instead making the faithful listen to a socialist rant. Later in the year, during Holy Week, the chavista gangs attacked a Mass led by Urosa Savino, beating Catholics attending a Holy Thursday Mass and looting the church. The gang members also physically assaulted the archbishop, whose sermon concerned the dire states of the country under socialism. On Easter, Maduro took to the airwaves to describe the anti-socialist opposition as “the antichrist,” while henchmen posted memes reading “Christ is Chavista” on social media.
In June, colecivos attacked another church in the capital, Santa Rosa de Lima, looting its contents and leaving priests without the necessary tools to perform Communion.
In a missive on July 12, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference issued a statement demanding the restoration of the constitutional order in the country, as well as demanding Maduro “respect the democratic will” and cease “irrational oppression … damages to homes and residences, and persecution.” The note also protested that “many of our communities and institutions are assaulted by illegal paramilitary groups that act with the complacency of the authorities.”