Catholic Church the only aid to Venezuelans in crisis

Venezuelans line up to cross into Colombia at the border in 2018 in Paraguachon, Colombia. Colombian bishops called on officials, parishes and the international community to increase efforts to help Venezuelan migrants, who are leaving their country at the rate of at least 50,000 people per month. PHOTO: CNS/Jaime Saldarriaga, Reuters

As Venezuela spirals deeper into severe economic crisis and social chaos, the Catholic Church is the only institution left to help the people, according to Aid to the Church in Need Australia.

ACN National Director Bernard Toutounji told The Catholic Weekly the situation in the South American country is desperate.

“The situation in Venezuela is tragic and not improving. It is a nation moving toward being a totalitarian regime,” said Mr Toutounji, who recently met with four bishops of Venezuela at a meeting of ACN national directors.

“There are paralysing levels of crime, murder, robbery, drug trafficking and torture… The government is completely corrupted; any good politicians have fled or been imprisoned.”

On 10 January former Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whose term in office had ended, illegitimately seized power.

The bishops of Venezuela have condemned Maduro’s seizure of power and his long-term mishandling of the economy which has brought the once-wealthy country to its knees.

The bishops called for “the transformation for which the country is crying out—namely the restoration of the rule of law, according to the Constitution, and the rebuilding of Venezuelan society in dignity, freedom and justice for all.” More than four million Venezuelans have fled the country in desperation as the cost of living has become exorbitant and the crime rate has skyrocketed.

“They are in a situation of hyperinflation which rises at 5 per cent a day; and food and other consumer goods increased by more than one million per cent in 2018,” Mr Toutounji said.

“Diseases that were long since eradicated are returning, including malaria. As adults flee to find food, work and safety the children and elderly are being left behind. Undernourishment around children is now at 14 per cent. The World Health Organisation classes anything over 5 per cent as ‘catastrophic’.”

National Director of Aid to the Church in Need Australia, Bernard Toutounji, speaks against the persecution of Christians at Red Wednesday in November 2018. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

“The only institution left to support people is the Church. Dioceses are taking in abandoned children. Parishes are growing vegetables to make soup as food production in Venezuela has been destroyed. The Church is offering counselling … to stop [people] falling into trafficking, organ harvesting and prostitution.”

The bishops described the country’s situation as “extremely grave.”

“It is a sin crying out to heaven to seek to maintain power at all costs and presume to prolong the chaos and inefficiency of the last few decades. This is morally unacceptable!” the bishops said as they described Maduro’s regime as illegitimate.

They vowed to continue helping the “weakest and most defenceless,” defending and promoting human rights, and developing training and programmes to assist the recovery of the country’s democratic institutions, all within “the process of evangelisation”.

However, Mr Toutounji said the bishops still have hope for the future.

“They know that eventually things will change and what they are trying to do is help the people to rise up and share in that hope.”

“Much of the pastoral and emergency support being given to the people of Venezuela is coming from the benefactors of Aid to the Church in Need. The bishops relayed to us that this help is keeping the people and the faith alive though this catastrophe.”

As well as supporting the basic needs of life, such as food and medicine, ACN is also assisting the local Church with pastoral support, bibles and materials for catechesis.

It also provides crucial Mass stipends which are the only source of income for many priests.
“Mass offerings help the survival of priests and allow them to continue to minster to the people, as the only organisation on the ground amongst those who are suffering,” Mr Toutounji said.

Donations can be made via www.aidtochurch.org. Any Mass offerings will go directly to Venezuelan clergy.