CARACAS Late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez's influence may have stretched into the afterlife and had a hand in Christ's decision to opt for a Latin American Pope, acting President Nicolas Maduro said on Wednesday.
"We know that our commander ascended to the heights and is face-to-face with Christ," Maduro said at a Caracas book fair. "Something influenced the choice of a South American pope, someone new arrived at Christ's side and said to him: 'Well, it seems to us South America's time has come.'"
Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina was elected in a surprise choice to be the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday, the first non-European pope in nearly 1,300 years.
"He (Chavez) may also call a constitutional assembly in Heaven at any moment to change the (Catholic) church on Earth so the people, the pure people of Christ, may govern the world," Maduro added of his mentor.
Chavez, who died last week, is revered with quasi-religious fervor by many of Venezuela's poorest for spending heavily on social programs and thumbing his nose at Western capitalism.
Maduro, Chavez's handpicked successor, is hoping to benefit from the outpouring of grief among his supporters and win an April 14 presidential vote.
Though influenced by an eclectic mix of revolutionary heroes and thinkers, Chavez always professed himself to be a devout Catholic, increasingly so during his final two-year battle with cancer.
During one Mass for his health last year, Chavez wept in public and pleaded with God to extend his life.
But his tumultuous rule included constant spats with Catholic leaders whom he accused of siding with Venezuela's traditional elite.
Not to be outdone by Maduro ahead of the looming April election, Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Capriles sent a congratulatory letter to the new pontiff.
"I ask you to bless Venezuela and Venezuelans, bless families and he who writes to you," wrote Capriles, also a devout Catholic who often visits a shrine on Margarita Island.
(Reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez and Daniel Wallis,; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Xavier Briand and Sandra Maler)