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After talks, Venezuelan bishops reiterate stance against new constitution

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CARACAS, Venezuela (CNS) -- The Venezuelan bishops' conference reiterated its rejection of a government proposal to draft a new constitution, after a rare meeting between the conference president and top government representatives.

"The church's position was reaffirmed, which is that realizing a constituent assembly is unnecessary," Father Pedro Pablo Aguilar, communications director for the bishops' conference, told Catholic News Service May 21.

Two days earlier, at the request of the government, Archbishop Diego Padron Sanchez, president of the bishops' conference, met with Elias Jaua, who heads Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro's commission to establish an assembly to rewrite the country's constitution.

Father Aguilar told CNS the bishops believed "that right now we should be discussing more important things."

The country remains deadlocked in a political impasse following the opposition's overwhelming victory in 2015 congressional elections. The Supreme Court subsequently annulled nearly all of the new congress' laws, and an attempt by the court in late March to officially strip the congress of its powers sparked massive protests that continue.

"One thing that Archbishop Padron has consistently said is that these protests are peaceful and, therefore, are valid," said Father Aguilar.

On May 1, Maduro proposed the creation of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution as a solution to the stalemate. But Maduro's opposition has refused to participate in the process and called it an attempt by the president to cancel or delay elections his United Socialist Party would surely lose.

Instead of a new constitution, the bishops insist that the government should debate ways to resolve the country's deep economic crisis. As a result of plunging oil prices and mismanagement, Venezuelans have endured three years of an economic recession that has resulted in shortages of basic foods and medicines.

In the meeting, Archbishop Padron urged Jaua to allow organizations like Caritas Venezuela, the local branch of Caritas Internationalis, to deliver key foods and medicines.

Although neither the government nor the bishops' conference budged on their respective positions, Father Aguilar emphasized that the meeting was cordial and ended with a prayer requested by the government representatives.

"The fact that this government commission was welcomed doesn't mean that the church is aligning itself with the government," he said. "It simply reaffirms that we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to express to the government the needs of the people."

The Venezuelan bishops' conference has had a rocky relationship with Venezuela's socialist government. Those divisions have become increasingly evident since a Vatican-sponsored dialogue between the opposition and government failed last year.

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