By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - The Roman Catholic Church may soon join Ibero-American leaders seeking dialogue between Venezuela's feuding government and opposition, the head of a regional bloc said on Thursday.
"I think it's good news this petition has been accepted by both sides. It will enrich us spiritually and, hopefully, politically," said former Colombian president Ernesto Samper, who heads the UNASUR bloc of South American states.
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With Venezuela enduring an unprecedented economic crisis, President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government is locked in a bitter standoff with the Democratic Unity opposition coalition.
The opposition won control of the legislature in 2015 and is pushing for a recall referendum this year to try and remove Maduro, whom they blame for Venezuela's runaway inflation, product shortages and third year of recession.
But Maduro, 53, the former bus driver who won election to succeed Hugo Chavez in 2013, accuses them of planning a coup and says the referendum will not happen. The government-leaning Supreme Court has shot down most of the legislature's measures.
UNASUR's Samper, and three other former heads of state - Spain's Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Panama's Martin Torrijos and the Dominican Republic's Leonel Fernandez - have for weeks been trying to bring both sides to the negotiating table.
But the rhetoric remains bitter, and various opposition leaders say Maduro's public exhortations to support dialogue are a cynical attempt to buy time and cling to power.
The opposition is suspicious of UNASUR and had been requesting a widening of potential mediators, including the Vatican. Pope Francis played a key role in facilitating Cuba and the United States' recent rapprochement, and the Church has said it is willing to help in Venezuela's crisis.Local church leaders have been extremely critical of Maduro. Democratic Unity head Jesus Torrealba said the coalition would respond to Samper's invitation to dialogue at the weekend.
But he added that the opposition maintained its condition for talks: a recall referendum this year, permission for international humanitarian aid to Venezuela, the freeing of jailed government opponents, and respect for the legislature.
While critics blame failed socialist economic policies for the OPEC nation's economic woes, Maduro points to the fall in oil prices, along with an "economic war" led by domestic opponents and businesses with the backing of Washington.
Maduro, who met with Samper and the other former leaders on Thursday, said "the path was opening ... for a political dialogue about all Venezuelans' fundamental issues."
(Additional reporting by Eyanir Chinea; Editing by Bernard Orr)