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CARACAS, Venezuela – Salsa music and long tirades blasted through loudspeakers for days at a colonial church in one of Venezuela's toughest slums aimed at drowning out Monsignor Hector Lunar — an outspoken priest who isn't shy about criticizing President Nicolas Maduro, even from the pulpit.
Then, the dark red letters appeared overnight, stenciled on the church's pale pink facade: "HECTOR LUNAR — PEDOPHILE — TERRORIST."
While appalled by the slurs, Lunar says he feels no need to defend himself. Parishioners show their support, he says, by filling the pews, knowing the attacks tapping into the worldwide sex-abuse scandals rocking the Roman Catholic Church come from Maduro loyalists intent on discrediting him.
"They have nothing to grasp onto," Lunar said. "We're holding firm and pressing forward with this fight, because this country has to change."
The conflict playing out in Petare, one of Latin America's largest slums, underscores the critical role played by the Catholic Church as Venezuela's political crisis crescendos. It also highlights divisions between local clergy and the Vatican on how best to confront Maduro.
While Venezuela's bishops have been leading a charge for Maduro's removal, urging a boycott of what they call an "illegitimate" presidential election last year and denouncing the government's human rights abuses, the Vatican has pursued a softer approach, with Pope Francis surprising many by sending an emissary to the socialist president's inauguration that dozens of countries shunned.
This unfolds as Venezuela's deepening political and economic collapse nears a breaking point. Opposition leader Juan Guaido burst onto the scene in January launching the first viable bid in years to change course in the once oil-rich country following two decades of socialist rule. He has since won backing from the United States and some 50 countries demanding that Maduro leave power.
One political battleground is at Lunar's Sweet Name of Jesus church on the edge of Petare, where some 400,000 people live crowded into the thousands of brightly colored cinderblock homes that blanket the Caracas hillsides as far as the eye can see. Notoriously poor and crime-ridden, the shanty town's residents struggle daily with scarce running water and frequent blackouts.
In his visits deep into Petare, the 39-year-old Lunar describes children who go hungry and residents dying at home because they can't afford medicine. Many of his young parishioners have been injured in clashes with security forces.
"Mass is Mass, but there have been moments when, yes, I've had to talk about the country's social affairs. It's impossible not to do so," Lunar said of his sermons. "The problem is one person who goes by the name of Nicolas Maduro."
Maduro refuses to abandon power and accuses the White House of mounting a coup against him to exploit the country's oil, the largest reserves in the world. He has appealed to the Argentine-born Pope Francis as his presidency comes under attack from within and from a growing coalition of foreign governments.
Maduro welcomed the Vatican emissary, Polish Monsignor George Koovakod, to his Jan. 10 inauguration, marking the start to a second term of a presidency that is widely criticized as illegitimate following an election banning the most popular challengers and political parties.
Sending a representative from the Vatican to Maduro's inauguration was seen by many as a goodwill gesture aimed at maintaining an open relationship with the government — in case the church could play a role in resolving Venezuela's crisis.
However, Pope Francis has since declined a request from Maduro to help relaunch talks with the opposition, saying that the Vatican would only get involved if both sides in the conflict asked it to step in and facilitate mediation. The Vatican expended its institutional prestige in 2016, attempting to mediate a dialogue that the pope later said "went up in smoke," placing blame on Maduro.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church in Venezuela has taken a strong stance in recent years as an outspoken critic of Maduro's policies. The country's Episcopal Bishop's Conference has called on Maduro to release political prisoners and rejected his policies to consolidate power by forming a constituent assembly that has effectively gutted the opposition-controlled National Assembly. And at the outset of deadly street protests that left more than 120 dead in 2017, the church demanded Maduro's government immediately stop firing on protesters with tear gas, buckshot and live rounds — a call Maduro's government did not heed.
"The Episcopal Conference has been and is very critical of the Maduro government," said Hugo Perez Hernaiz, a former sociology professor at the Central University in Caracas. "They squarely blame the government, and they are very consistent on that."
The Catholic Church in Venezuela historically has been one of the most respected institutions in the country, he said, noting that the clergy played an influential role bringing an end to the Marcos Perez Jimenez dictatorship in 1958, issuing a letter months before his ouster cutting ties with the government.
In the current crisis, other churches across Venezuela have also become flashpoints for violence. A group of Guaido supporters holding a rally at a church in the port city of Maracaibo came under attack by 40 men armed with clubs who entered the sanctuary, vandalizing the altar and injuring 15 people, some with open head wounds, local media reported.
In Petare, the Maduro supporters came to the plaza for 19 consecutive days in late January and early February. They set up a stage with speakers just steps from the church's front doors, blasting loud music and politically charged speeches aimed at Lunar.
"He uses the excuse of being a priest and wearing the frock but has no right to be in the street promoting protests, promoting terrorism and asking for a military intervention," a Maduro supporter and local councilman, Abraham Aparicio, shouted into the microphone, adding that U.S. bombs won't just kill government supporters. "They're going to kill everyone, God forbid."
The derogatory graffiti shaming Lunar was painted on the front of the church and along one side. Several church members gathered the next morning to paint over it.
Lunar was first to pick up the roller brush, applying a light coat over the dark red letters. "God is great," he said in a booming voice as he handed the brush to parishioners who took turns painting. Several coats were required to finally hide the words.
One of the volunteers, 64-year-old Jose Teran, said the church is sacred and should not be desecrated. He called Lunar a good priest who creates an environment where followers can come for refuge in these difficult times.
Teran also said he didn't believe the Maduro loyalists would give up quickly, expecting them to return with their speakers and more red paint.
"If they come to paint again," Teran said, "we'll cover it up again."
Scott Smith on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ScottSmithAP