As opposition marches were held across Venezuela Wednesday, at least 700 opposition supporters were trapped in Maturin's Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel for several hours, besieged by the Venezuelan Army.
The Jan. 23 marches were convoked by the National Assembly, Venezuela's democratically elected legislature, which is controlled by the opposition. At one of these marches in Caracas, Juan Guaido, head of the National Assembly, declared himself interim president, calling leader Nicolas Maduro illegitimate.
Tens of thousands of Venezuelans marched in support of the opposition, and security forces met some of the protesters with tear gas. Local NGOs have said 14 people were shot dead during protests Jan. 22-23.
Bishop Enrique Pérez Lavado of Maturin reported that seminarians, priests, and some 700 people participating in the demonstation were besieged in the cathedral, with the military “trying to break their way inside,” according to the Venezuelan bishops' conference on Twitter.
Soon after, Bishop Pérez reported that the soldiers had surrounded the church, with more than a thousand opposition demonstrators inside: “The National Bolivarian Army is guarding the entrances to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral where there are more than a thousand opposition supporters.”
According to a report on Twitter by Radio Fe y Alegría, government supporters were also inside the cathedral. The station said that Fr. Samael Gamboa negotiated with the security forces for the people to leave in groups, “to guarantee their human rights.”
The people took refuge in the cathedral due to repression by the regime's security forces and by pro-government groups.
During the protests, a group of demonstrators set fire to the headquarters of the ruling United Socialist Party in Maturín.
“After more than three hours trapped inside the Maturín cathedral, the group of opposition supporters managed to begin leaving” at 5:00 pm, Radio Fe y Alegría reported.
The opposition marches were supported by the Venezuelan bishops, some of whom participated. The marches marked the anniversary of a 1958 coup which overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez.
Guaido has pledged a transitional government and free elections. He has been recognized by the US, UK, Canada, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica.
Since Maduro succeeded Hugo Chávez as president of Venezuela in 2013, Venezuela has been marred by violence and social upheaval. Under the socialist government, the country has seen severe shortages and hyperinflation, and millions have emigrated.
Earlier this month, the bishops called illegitimate Maduro's swearing in for a second term as president. Maduro won a May 2018 presidential election which was boycotted by the opposition and has been rejected by much of the international community.
Alessandro Gisotti, interim Holy See press officer, said Jan. 24 that Pope Francis “is praying for the victims and for all the people of Venezuela,” and that “the Holy See supports all efforts that help save the population from further suffering”.
This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.