Churches attacked in Venezuela's ongoing unrest

(AP)Nuns raise their arms during a women's march protesting repression against anti-government demonstrators in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, February 26, 2014

As the civil unrest and anti-government protests continue throughout Venezuela, churches are finding themselves the targets of attacks.

Monsignor Victor Hugo Basabe, Undersecretary of the Episcopal Conference of Venezuela, was quoted by Agenzia Fides as saying that violent groups had attacked churches located in places affected by the unrest. 

He said the Church of Santa Barbara in Mérida was broken into during Mass by what Agenzia Fides described as "irregular groups".

In the town of La Victoria, the parish church of Our Lady of La Candelaria was vandalised and desecrated.

A group of what El Periodiquito newspaper called "common criminals" attacked the church by night.

They broke the altar, destroyed the tabernacle container for the specially blessed wine and wafers for the Eucharist, scattering them to the ground. In the place where the tabernacle had stood, they left human excrement.

They also damaged a niche containing a statue of Jesus and stole the church's stereo system and some of the money boxes for the collection.

However, in addition to vigilante groups, there are reports of Venezuelan authorities also being involved.  Mgr Basabe said that on February 18, priest Father José Palmar was set upon and beaten by police in Venezuela's second largest city, Maracaibo.

Monsignor Rafael Conde, Bishop of the Diocese of Maracay, was quoted by Agenzia Fides as saying: "Insecurity affects us all"

As the unrest continued, another life was claimed, this time a 24-year-old student in the far western state of Tachira.

The current death toll is estimated by the Venezuelan government at 22. There has also been at least one foreign fatality, a Chilean woman.

President Nicolás Maduro has convened a third "dialogue of peace" but opposition groups are currently unwilling to participate.

The Secretary General of the Organisation of American States, José Miguel Insulza, has called on the Catholic Church to act as a mediator in the situation to help end the violence.