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Published: Tuesday, January 8, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Church leaders warn Venezuela's stability at risk

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela are warning that the country's stability is at risk due to growing tensions surrounding President Hugo Chavez's long absence after cancer surgery in Cuba.
Catholic leaders in the Venezuelan Bishops Conference criticized the government on Monday for failing to provide more details about Chavez's state nearly a month after his operation. Government officials have called Chavez's condition delicate and say he's been fighting a severe respiratory infection. Chavez hasn't spoken publicly since before the Dec. 11 surgery.
The bishops conference said in a statement that the country faces a potentially dangerous and violent situation amid uncertainty about Chavez's condition.
"The nation's political and social stability is at serious risk," said Bishop Diego Padron, the conference's president, reading a statement from the organization.
Chavez describes himself as Christian but has clashed repeatedly with Catholic leaders, who have accused the president of becoming increasingly authoritarian.
The Venezuelan Constitution says the presidential oath should be taken before lawmakers in the National Assembly on Jan. 10, this Thursday. It says the president may also take the oath before the Supreme Court if he's unable to be sworn in before the assembly.
Some opposition leaders have argued that Chavez's allies would violate the constitution if they try to put off the inauguration.
Vice President Nicolas Maduro has called the swearing-in a "formality" and said the opposition is erroneously interpreting the constitution.
Catholic leaders agreed with the opposition's arguments on Monday, saying the constitution is clear that one presidential term ends and another begins on Jan. 10.
"Altering the constitution to achieve a political goal is morally unacceptable," the Catholic leaders said, adding that they would oppose any attempts to manipulate the constitution to the "detriment of democracy."
It remains unclear what the opposition intends to do if Chavez doesn't show up on inauguration day.
But National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello warned the opposition not to try to stir up trouble. Speaking to reporters alongside Maduro on Monday, he called for the government's supporters to demonstrate in the streets of Caracas on Thursday.
Maduro reiterated the government's view that Chavez may be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later day. Referring to the Catholic Church's leaders, Maduro said he hopes they "maintain a conduct of respect."

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