CARACAS Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wept and asked God to spare his life during a pre-Easter Mass on Thursday after returning from his latest session of cancer treatment in Cuba.
Very little is known about the 57-year-old socialist leader's condition, including even what type of cancer he has. Chavez has undergone three operations in less than a year, and received two sessions of radiation treatment.
He says the latest surgery was successful, that he is recovering well and will be fit to win a new six-year term at an election in October. Yet big questions remain about his future, and on Thursday the strain appeared to show.
In a televised speech to the Catholic service in his home state of Barinas, Chavez cried and his voice broke as he eulogized Jesus, revolutionary fighter Ernesto "Che" Guevara and South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"Never forget that we are the children of giants ... I could not avoid some tears," the former soldier said, his parents and other relatives looking on from the church rows.
"Give me your crown, Jesus. Give me your cross, your thorns so that I may bleed. But give me life, because I have more to do for this country and these people. Do not take me yet," Chavez added, standing below an image of Jesus with the Crucifix.
Having dominated the continent's biggest oil exporter for the last 13 years, Chavez's sickness has thrown its politics into turmoil in the run-up to the election on October 7.
Flying back and forth to Havana for the radiation therapy, Chavez has been forced to run a kind of "virtual" campaign via Twitter and appearances on state television, while his opposition rival Henrique Capriles tours the country.
In his speech at the Mass, Chavez soon seemed to recover his composure, joking with his brother Adan in the congregation that few people were watching because it was the Easter holiday, when Venezuelans typically hit the country's beautiful beaches.
'LIFE HAS BEEN A HURRICANE'
Chavez said he had a lot of faith that his cancer would not return after his first two operations last year - which removed a baseball sized tumor from his pelvis - but it did.
"Today, I have more faith than yesterday," he said.
"Life has been a hurricane ... but a couple of years ago my life began to become not my own anymore," the president said. "Who said the path of revolution would be easy?"
He returned to Barinas late on Wednesday from Havana, where he had undergone a second session of radiation therapy. He said it went well and that all the test results had been positive.
But in the absence of detailed information on his condition, Venezuelans have hunted for clues in his appearance each time he is on state TV. One local news website ran a large photo of his heavily perspiring brow after he disembarked from the jet.
One Venezuelan opposition journalist who has broken news on Chavez's condition in the past reported that his medical team continued to disagree among themselves over the best course, and a Brazilian blogger said he might travel there for treatment.
Chavez's election rival, Capriles, has mostly kept quiet about the president's illness, preferring to wish him a speedy recovery so that he can beat him in a fair fight at the polls.
But the youthful state government has criticized Chavez for choosing to be treated abroad, saying it sends a bad message to ordinary Venezuelans if he does not trust local doctors.
Capriles, 39, took issue this week with repeated comments by Chavez and his allies that Jesus must have been a fellow leftist radical.
"This theme is an obsession of the eternal candidate," Capriles said on Twitter, referring to Chavez. "This Holy Week, we should remember Christ was neither socialist nor capitalist."
In the latest opinion poll released last month, the president had a solid 13-percentage point lead over his opponent, but many voters remained undecided.
(Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Esteban Israel; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Doina Chiacu)