Church building seized by a local government group
On Monday 28 May, a group of people forced their way into the premises of Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Ejido in Mérida state. Fr. José Juan Flores, the parish priest, prevented them from entering the church but they tore off the padlocks to the doors that give access to the soccer field and parish halls. After asking Fr. Flores to remove his belongings, they proceeded to weld shut from the outside the metal doors leading to the soccer field.
When Fr. Flores questioned the men, they replied that they were from the city council and claimed they were acting on the instructions of the mayor of Ejido, Simón Pablo Figueroa.
Bishop Luis Enrique Rojas Ruiz, Auxiliary Bishop of Mérida, said that once he learned about the incident he decided to send a Whatsapp message about the “frightening and arbitrary” behaviour of the group.
“We call on the authorities in charge of this case to answer for physical integrity and safety of the parish priests as well as that all of the people who are there,” Bishop Rojas’ message reads.
Hours later, Bishop Rojas telephoned the mayor and invited him to a meeting. However, the meeting could not take place immediately as the mayor was in Caracas. Lawyers from the archdiocese were to meet the local authorities on 29 May to resolve and hopefully end the seizure.
Fr. Flores said he was expecting an incident of this kind since the church had been threatened with the seizure of its parish buildings and the priests and faithful had also been threatened.
“They have insulted the faith on many occasions, scratching highly offensive graffiti on the parish buildings. They want to damage the image of the priests and the diocese and so they damage beautiful works of art with expletives and major insults,” Bishop Rojas said.
Venezuela’s bishops have spoken out strongly against the government of Maduro, though they insist they are not the opposition but merely standing with the people. In response, violent gangs associated with the regime have disrupted Masses, threatened priests, vandalised churches, and interfered with the Church’s humanitarian agencies. The Vatican’s chief diplomat to the United Nations, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, said Church institutions have been unjustly accused of various offences, and some bishops had even been defamed in public.