An attack on four high school-age seminarians by pro-government thugs has sparked outrage in Venezuela and underscored the tense political situation and social unrest in the South American country.
It also showed the challenges of church-state relations in a country plagued by polarized politics and violence and suffering through shortages of everything from food to medicines to Communion wine for celebrating Mass.
The four minor seminary students, ages 14-16, and the younger brother of one of the seminarians were walking to English classes in the city of Merida July 1 when they passed a political protest, Father Luis Enrique Rojas Ruiz, pastor at the Merida cathedral, told Catholic News Service.
The protest was interrupted by masked individuals, who asked the seminarians, "Are you opposition or chavistas?" according to Father Rojas.
The seminarians responded, "We're seminarians," which provoked a physical attacks and included the assailants tearing off the young men's clothing, robbing and beating them. The assailants also "threatened to burn one of the seminarians alive."
"This set off a series of protests," Father Rojas said, adding that the church had put itself on the side of the poor, but had stayed out of politics. "We're suffering a humanitarian crisis (in Venezuela) in every sense."
Thousands subsequently took to the streets of Merida, approximately 320 miles from the capital, Caracas, to protest. Mass was celebrated July 4 at the St. Bonaventure Seminary.
The attack on the seminarians "shows us the intransigence, fanaticism and impunity that has taken over the streets," Archbishop Baltazar Porras Cardozo of Merida said in a statement. "This is not the way to resolve differences, which can exist in society, and it is what is leading us into this climate of violence and desperation and discredits a government that is not concerned with the well-being of its citizens."
Mayor Carlos Garcia of Merida posted a photo on Facebook July 1, showing three naked individuals fleeing in the street.