The President of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, called for an investigation of two bishops accused of committing “hate crimes” in homilies they gave on the Feast of the Divine Shepherdess, Jan. 14, a popular Marian feast day in the country.

On Monday, the Venezuelan president gave a speech before the Constitutional Assembly asking the Supreme Court of Justice, the Comptroller's Office and the Public Prosecutor's Office to investigate the Archbishop of Barquisimeto, Antonio López Castillo; and the Bishop of San Felipe, Víctor Hugo Basabe.

Venezuela’s El Nacional reports that the bishops “cried out for the end of hunger and corruption” in their homilies. Bishop Basabe made reference to a “corrupt plague” causing starvation in the country, and Archbishop Castillo prayed the country would be saved from corruption, according to the report.

In his speech, Maduro said that “a devil comes in a cassock to call for violent confrontations, to call for civil war…and I thank the people of the state of Lara who alerted me to this filth, because I really don't listen to [the bishops]. We don't listen to those bandits.”

Maduro’s allegations came just days after the Venezuelan bishops’ conference called for international monitors to oversee the country’s 2018 presidential elections, calling the Constitutional Assembly controlled by Maduro “unconstitutional and illegitimate.”

Archbishop Castillo told reporters Tuesday that he had received a phone call of support from Pope Francis, according to a report from El Impulso.

“We received Pope Francis' message and he supports us as well as the people of Venezuela,” he said.

Bishop Basabe responded to Maduro's accusations through a letter obtained by ACI Prensa--CNA's Spanish language sister agency. Basabe stated that his “conscience in no way reproaches him” because his “only crime seems to be serving the truth.”

“Mr. Maduro has put in my mouth words I never said. How sad it is  that a national public official would so scandalously lie in front of the whole country on National Teacher's Day. What's worse is he accuses me committing a crime while he commits one himself,” the bishop said.

“I knew that my words would upset those who deep down in their consciences know they are responsible for the tragedy that this people whom I love is going through,” Basabe added.

“Here I am in my own church with my only weapons: my faith in Christ and the certainty that my life is in his hands. [My fate] is up to those who will not be pardoned by conscience or history,” he concluded.

Bishop Mario Moronta Rodriguez, vice-president of the Venezuelan bishops' conference, also repudiated Maduro's accusations. On Jan. 16, he appeared on the television program Circuito Éxitos, arguing that the accusations made against Lopez and Castillo are accusations “against the entire episcopate and the entire Catholic Church.”

“What they did was to simply make a statement reflecting everything we have been saying for a long time and it touches on a wound or sore,” he added.

Finally, he said that “when the bishops are called ‘devils in a cassock,' [Maduro] is also inciting hatred.”

“There are a lot of people going hungry. If that's calling for hatred then the dramatic nature of that law has to be changed,” he concluded.

In a Jan 16 press release, the Venezuelan bishops' conference expressed their solidarity with Lopez and Basabe, and said that President Maduro, “totally twisted the message” given by both of them, “with the purpose of claiming the bishops were committing a crime.”

“The truth about what is happening in the country was evidenced in the homilies given that day. The gestures of the thousands of parishioners present at the Mass on Venezuela Avenue showed they agreed with what they were hearing,” the statement added.

Venezuela’s hate crime law “criminalizes any demonstrations” against the government, the bishops noted.

“We exhort all the parishioners of the Archdiocese of Barquisimeto and the Diocese of San Felipe to care for your pastors, to be alert to any move against them, which could attack their human dignity,” the statement added.

This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA