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CARACAS, Venezuela – Pope Francis is urging Venezuelans on both sides to put aside their political differences and demonstrate the necessary courage to reach an agreement that avoids more bloodshed after weeks of violent protests.
Francis' written message was delivered by a Vatican envoy at the start of a much-anticipated meeting Thursday night between President Nicolas Maduro and key members of the opposition. In the missive, the Latin American pontiff said the polarization that besets Venezuela is inflicting deep pain on the country, complicating efforts to bring down crime and resolve economic problems that worry everyone regardless of their political views.
"I'm aware of the restlessness and pain felt by so many people," according to the letter read by Aldo Giordano, the Holy See's representative in Caracas. "I urge you not to get stuck in the conflict of the moment but open yourselves to one another to become true builders of peace."
Thursday's talks, which were televised, are first major effort at reconciliation since anti-government protests began to roil Venezuelan cities in early February.
Key leaders of the opposition, including two-time presidential candidate Henrique Capriles, agreed to sit down with Maduro after receiving assurances that the socialist government is willing to discuss divisive issues such as an amnesty for jailed government opponents and the creation of an independent truth commission to investigate who's to blame for at least 40 deaths tied to the unrest.
With a thick tension hanging over the presidential palace, Maduro broke the ice by shaking hands with each member of the opposition including Capriles, who he regularly attacks in public and narrowly defeated in an April 2013 election following Hugo Chavez's death from cancer.
Just bringing the two sides in the same room is a monumental task in a country polarized by 15 years of socialist rule. While opponents blame the government for destroying the oil-rich economy and stamping out dissent, Maduro claims radical opponents, backed by the U.S., are trying to repeat the destabilizing events that led to the 2002 coup that briefly removed Chavez from power.
But not everyone in the opposition is on board. Several parties in the catch-all Democratic Unity alliance, including the one led by jailed hardliner Leopoldo Lopez, have rejected the talks as a political stunt by Maduro to portray himself as a peacemaker.
Student groups, Maduro's fiercest opponents, also sat out Thursday's meeting and instead staged a protest where they denounced as "traitors" members of the opposition who stretch out a hand to Maduro.
Reflecting the recalcitrance on both sides, the 22 speakers mostly rehashed jabs at one another in an hours-long media spectacle.
Maduro, showing the statesman's restraint he rarely exhibits when speaking to supporters, called on the opposition to join him in creating a climate of mutual respect and non-violence.
Then came the turn of Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, executive secretary for the opposition alliance, who complained that Maduro's dominance of the nation's airwaves with hours-long speeches broadcast daily on radio and television has made it nearly impossible for Venezuelans to hear other viewpoints.
"It's a worrisome sign that something is very wrong when a meeting between the government and the opposition is a rare event," said Aveledo.
Before talks began, unrest claimed what the government says is its 40th fatality.
Jose Cirilo Darma, a 27-year-old police officer, died Thursday from gunshot wounds suffered while trying to break up an anti-government demonstration a day earlier in the western city of Barquisimeto.
Jorge Rueda and Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report from Caracas.