By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - On a recent Sunday morning, several hundred Catholic worshippers were at Mass inside a hillside church of a poor Caracas neighborhood when there was a sudden commotion at the back.
About 20 people barged in, mainly men with some wearing red shirts, to shout insults at the clergy like "Satan in a cassock!" and "Fascist!" witnesses said.
They also used the ruling Socialists' rallying cry, "Chavez lives!" in honor of late President Hugo Chavez.
"Some people were scared, obviously, but no one was hurt," recounted Luis Arias, 67, a catechism teacher at the San Pedro Claver church in the "23 De Enero" community, long an area of militant support for Venezuela's 18-year socialist government.
"They said 'because the priests have spoken about politics, we have the right too," added Arias, who was present throughout.
The leader of the group, who works at a nearby radio station, took the pulpit to give a political speech and denounce the local priest who had been publicizing church pronouncements critical of President Nicolas Maduro's government.
The San Pedro Claver fracas was the latest of half a dozen incidents in recent weeks, some violent, that have outraged Venezuela's Roman Catholic hierarchy and reawakened long-simmering church-state antagonism in the South American nation.
A month ago, government supporters protested against an archbishop, Antonio Lopez, at his home in Barquisimeto city after he gave a speech saying socialism had brought "misery."
Caracas' main cathedral was stoned in the middle of the night.
And on the same day as the interruption at San Pedro Claver church in Caracas, Jan. 29, police entered a church in Venezuela's second biggest city Maracaibo and interrupted the sermon - apparently to enforce traffic fines.
Also just before Jan. 1, masked and rifle-wielding assailants entered a Trappist monastery in the Andean state of Merida, robbing and terrorizing monks.
Though that incident had the hallmarks of gang crime that has become commonplace across violent Venezuela, it came after thugs beat up and stripped naked some Catholic students in the same state earlier that year - leaving the church suspicious.
"This list, in my opinion, shows they are not isolated events," Archbishop Diego Padron, who heads the main church authority Venezuela's Episcopal Conference, told Reuters.
Enumerating the incidents one by one, Padron drew a parallel with the jailing of priests and hostility toward the church in 1958 near the end of Venezuelan dictator Marcos Perez' rule.
"There must be a line, an order, to intimidate the church, to lower its discourse, to be silent," the 77-year-old cleric added in an interview at the conference's headquarters on a hillside of west Caracas. "The government's retaliation against the declarations of the Conference is intimidation."
Though government officials have frequently spoken in public about the church, to chastise clergy for taking political stances, requests to discuss the specific recent incidents went unanswered. Members of the group who entered the San Pedro Claver church, contacted by Reuters, declined to comment.
"FAILED 21st CENTURY SOCIALISM"?
After numerous frays with Chavez during his 1999-2013 rule, the church has once again taken its gloves off, with a series of highly critical speeches and proclamations since late last year.
Despite its oil wealth, the OPEC nation of 30 million people is suffering an unprecedented economic collapse, with inflation the highest in the world, long lines at shops, and basic foodstuffs and medicines running scarce.
Venezuela's murder rate is one of the world's highest, and foes say the state has morphed into dictatorship by jailing protesters, sidelining congress, and dragging its feet on elections.
"We locate the root of such a tough crisis in the application of a failed political system they called '21st century socialism'," said Padron, referring to Chavez's radical revamp of Venezuela's economy and political system.
Venezuela is a deeply religious country, and politicians on all sides flaunt their faith. But senior officials say church leaders have long been in bed with the elite and wealthy, and are allying with the opposition to seek Maduro's downfall.
"They are part of the right wing. They should take their seat as a political party in the opposition," the Socialist Party's powerful No. 2 Diosdado Cabello scoffed recently.
Seeking to show that plenty of rank-and-file churchgoers were behind Maduro, despite church leaders' anti-socialist rhetoric, at one rally Cabello asked for a show of hands from those who both backed the government and were Catholics.
"Here are 'Chavista' Catholics too, not all Catholics are 'squalid'!" he said, using a pejorative term for opponents first coined by Chavez, who never forgave some in the Catholic hierarchy for endorsing a short-lived 2002 putsch against him.
Underlining the latest flare-up in enmities, another senior official this month accused the Church of seeking war, while a bishop alleged clergy's telephones were being tapped.
The Vatican did step into Venezuelan politics toward the end of last year, facilitating talks between the Maduro government and the opposition coalition. But the dialogue quickly collapsed amid incriminations between both sides.
Outside the San Pedro Claver church in "23 De Enero," a painted figure of St. Peter sits on a wall next to the slogan "We are with Chavez and Maduro."
Most worshippers there simply hope there will be no repeat of last month's scary incident, when the group disrupted Mass and also barricaded the road outside to block a procession.
"It's no secret the country is very needy at the moment and the Church is trying to tell the truth," said Samuel Gamboa, 21, who plays the guitar there. "But everyone needs to stay calm and handle all this in peace."
(Additional reporting by Miguel Subaran; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Lisa Shumaker)