Venezuela's Maduro cancels Pope meeting due to 'flu' amid human rights criticism

Venezuela's Maduro cancels Pope meeting due to 'flu' amid human rights criticism
By Alasdair Sandford
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Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro may have escaped an ear-bashing from Pope Francis on human rights after cancelling a planned visit to Rome.

Maduro had been due to meet the Argentine pope on Sunday, but said it in a broadcast on state television that he was sick with flu and otitis – an inflammation of the ear – and doctors had forbidden him to make the trip.

It comes as the Catholic Church in Venezuela has been stepping up criticism of human rights abuses in the country.

Venezuelan Archbishop Roberto Luckert had personally briefed the pope recently on the situation in the country.

Opposition leaders held vigils on Saturday urging Pope Francis to raise the issue of jailed colleagues.

The leader of the opposition party Voluntad Popular, Leopoldo López, and former mayor Daniel Ceballos, who were both imprisoned early last year for their role in nationwide protests which left more than 40 dead on both sides of the political divide, launched partial hunger strikes around two weeks ago.

Human Rights Watch had also called publicly on the Vatican to raise human rights with President Maduro at the planned Rome meeting.

In an open letter to Pope Francis, the campaign group highlighted the cases of Maduro’s jailed political opponents, as well as arbitrary arrests and prosecutions, the lack of judicial independence and accountability for the security forces, and the country’s catastrophic economy and health service.

Still more pressure on the pope to intervene over Venezuela came last week in the form of an open letter from two-time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

On Saturday in Sarajevo, Pope Francis urged Bosnians to seek reconciliation to heal the wounds of the country’s civil war.

The pontiff – the first from Latin America – may have to wait before tackling Venezuela’s crackdown on dissent. President Maduro said he was seeking to reschedule the meeting.

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