Pope fears bloodshed in Venezuela, not taking sides for now

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE (Reuters) - Pope Francis said on Sunday he feared bloodshed in Venezuela but that it was premature for him to take sides because it could cause more damage.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is confronting an unprecedented challenge to his authority after opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president, citing a fraudulent election and winning wide international support.

“In this moment, I support all the Venezuelan people because they are a people who are suffering,” the pope told reporters on a plane taking him back from Panama, where he made an appeal for a just solution and respect for human rights in Venezuela.

“I suffer for what is happening in Venezuela,” he said.

“What is it that scares me? Bloodshed,” he said. “The problem of violence frightens me. After all the efforts made in Colombia, what happened at the police academy was horrific. Bloodshed solves nothing.”

The pope was referring to a bomb attack at a police academy in Bogota that killed 21 people. The government there has blamed the ELN guerrilla group, which had entered peace talks with the previous government.

Francis was responding to a Mexican journalist who told him that Venezuelans “want to hear from their Latin American pope.”

On Sunday, Israel and Australia joined the countries backing Guaido, and President Donald Trump’s administration said it had accepted opposition figure Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as Venezuela’s diplomatic representative in the United States.

The Argentine Pope told reporters: “If I said, ‘listen to these countries’ or ‘listen to those countries...’ I would put myself in a role that I do not know, it would be a pastoral imprudence on my part and I would cause damage.”

Britain, Germany, France and Spain all said they would recognize Guaido if Maduro failed to call new elections within eight days, an ultimatum Russia said was “absurd” and the Venezuelan foreign minister called “childlike.”

The United States, Canada, most Latin American nations and many European states say Maduro stole his second-term election win in May.

In the past few years, the Vatican, along with some European and Latin American leaders, has attempted to mediate between Maduro and the opposition but each try ended in failure.

Reporting By Philip Pullella; Editing by Andrew Heavens