TEGUCIGALPA Honduras' powerful Roman Catholic Church has backed the ouster of President Manuel Zelaya, surrendering a chance to be an impartial mediator because it would rather take sides in order to counter the influence of Venezuela's leftist president, Hugo Chavez.
The political forces and military that toppled Zelaya on June 28 cited Chavez as a factor in their coup, saying they feared the Honduran president was adopting the Chavez brand of socialism and political tactics.
They accused Zelaya of violating the constitution by seeking to extend his rule through the lifting of presidential term limits, as Chavez has done.
Leaders of the Catholic Church, which polls show is the most respected institution in the conservative Central American country, have backed the ouster and thrown their weight behind the interim government installed by the Honduran Congress.
"The Church should have taken a more conciliatory posture," said Efrain Diaz, a political analyst with the non-governmental Center for Human Development. "This country is fractured and it needs a climate of reconciliation."
Ismael Moreno, a Jesuit priest and radio commentator who is not part of the hierarchy, put it more bluntly.
"The Church has lost all ability to mediate," he said. "It has lost all credibility."
The role of mediator has been filled by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who will oversee a new round of talks at the weekend between delegations representing Zelaya and interim President Roberto Micheletti.
Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, believed to be on a short list of possible papal candidates, has justified Zelaya's ouster while opposing his expulsion from the country.
"He doesn't have any authority, moral or legal," Rodriguez told the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.
"The legal authority he lost because he broke laws and the moral authority he lost with a discourse full of lies. The most patriotic thing he could do is stay away. Anything else is just trying to impose Hugo Chavez's project at all costs."
Chavez has traded barbs with the Honduran Church before, calling Cardinal Rodriguez a "parrot" and an "imperialist clown" in 2007. The cardinal had called Chavez a dictator who thought he was God.
Chavez has also tussled with the Church in his own country, accusing it of siding with the rich over the poor.
SHIFT TO THE LEFT
Zelaya, a logging magnate, was elected as a moderate in 2005 but gradually moved closer to Chavez and his project of aligning leftist governments in Latin America.
When Zelaya embarked on a Chavez-like plan to reform the constitution and possibly extend his term, the Supreme Court and Congress called it illegal and unconstitutional.
The armed forces then expelled Zelaya at gunpoint, rousting him from bed and flying him to Costa Rica, still in his pajamas. Talks to date on ending the crisis have shown Zelaya and the interim government are far apart.
Honduras has often turned to Rodriguez and the Church to solve its most intractable problems, such as naming the cardinal as head of a commission that temporarily controlled the police.
While estimates vary widely on what percentage of Hondurans are Catholic, all show a solid majority.
But some 46 percent of Hondurans also have a favorable opinion of Zelaya, according to a CID-Gallup poll published in La Prensa newspaper on Wednesday. Moreno said that split was causing confusion among the Catholic faithful.
The Church openly reserves the right to enter the political fray when it sees fit and had also opposed Zelaya on abortion rights. Differences became more pronounced over the past year as Zelaya grew closer to Chavez.
"The Church should not just stay locked up inside the church," Antonio Quetglas, an influential Honduran priest, told Reuters. "It must illuminate what is happening in the outside world. It has to get involved in politics."
(Additional reporting by Juana Casas and Simon Gardner; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and John O'Callaghan)