Vatican calls for dialogue in crisis-hit Venezuela

The Catholic Church weighed in Sunday on Venezuela's political crisis, with Pope Francis expressing deep concern and calling for dialogue in the wake of a disputed presidential election.

The head of the Venezuela church meanwhile offered to help arrange talks between President Nicolas Maduro, the political heir of the late leftist leader Hugo Chavez, and opposition leader Henrique Capriles.

"It's necessary to resolve this crisis. The tone has to be lowered," Cardinal Jorge Urosa said in an interview with Ultimas Noticias, a daily newspaper.

Two days after Maduro's inauguration as president, the government and the opposition remained locked in a tense confrontation over the outcome of the snap election to replace Chavez, who died March 5 after 14 years in power.

The National Electoral Council declared Maduro the winner with an 1.8 percent margin, setting off opposition demands for a recount and furious street protests that the government said left eight people dead across the country.

An expanded audit of the vote is to begin as early as next week, but the vice president of the election council said Saturday it could not overturn Maduro's victory.

Pope Francis, who hails from Argentina and is the first pontiff from Latin America, said in a statement from the Vatican Sunday that he was following events in Venezuela "with great concern."

"I invite the dear Venezuelan people, and in particular its institutional and political leaders, to establish a dialogue based on the truth, mutual recognition in the search for the common good and out of love for the nation," he said.

Urosa noted that the Venezuelan bishops had issued a statement after the April 14 election offering the church's good offices "to procure a dialogue among the parties who are still in conflict."

The Catholic Church has often played a role as mediator in political conflicts in Latin America, notably in communist-ruled Cuba in recent years, but it has been largely sidelined in Venezuela under Chavez, a leftwing populist who often butted heads with the bishops.

Urosa acknowledged that the church's appeals have often gone unheeded.

"In terms of the political climate we have permanently been highlighting the need to lower the aggressive tone," he said.

"It's lamentable. They pay no attention! And when I've talked about insecurity and violence, they've told me I'm getting involved in politics."

In his inaugural address Maduro said he was ready for dialogue, "even with the devil," but warned he would take a hard line against opposition protesters, whom he accuses of seeking a coup d'etat.

Capriles responded: "I'll always be open to dialogue, but not with a gun to the head or on the basis of blackmail, or threats and intimidation."

The opposition leader and his aides said they were preparing for a long fight over the vote.

The election council has said the audit, which is supposed to take 30 days, will involve comparisons of paper receipts of electronic votes cast with the electronic tallies. Capriles and his aides have indicated they will seek other voting records as well.