World Youth Day pilgrims express solidarity with Venezuelans

Venezuela banner WYD Jan 24 2019 Credit Jonah McKeown CNA CNA A Pray for Venezuela banner at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua in Panama City, Jan. 24, 2019. | Jonah McKeown/CNA.

Pilgrims from 150 countries are in Panama this week for World Youth Day, including 400 from Venezuela, who are urging their fellow pilgrims to pray for their country amid escalating unrest and political upheaval.

Pope Francis spoke to approximately 315,000 thousand young people Jan. 24 at the opening ceremony of World Youth Day at Campo Santa Maria la Antigua in Panama City, encouraging them to be united by their common love of Christ.

Hours before the pope's arrival, thousands of enthusiastic pilgrims, most of them Latin American, crammed close to the main stage in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the Holy Father as he exited his vehicle. Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and Panama were all represented with large groups, while smaller groups from Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador were also present.

Before the opening ceremony, a large group of pilgrims close to the main stage unfurled a nearly 200-foot banner bearing the words "#PrayforVenezuela."

Robert Araujo, 27, a pilgrim from Barquisimeto, Venezuela, said this is the first time he has been able to attend World Youth Day after trying for ten years. He said the banner, which was made by a group of Venezuelan expats now living in Panama, is a gesture of solidarity and a testament to the pilgrims' trust in the power of prayer.

"This year is decisive for Venezuela," Araujo told ACI Prensa, CNA's sister agency. "This flag is a reaffirmation that Venezuelans, Latin Americans and all Christians around the world believe firmly in prayer and that is why we say: Pray for Venezuela," he said.

Venezuela has been facing devastating inflation and social unrest since the election of president Nicolás Maduro in 2013, who was recently sworn in for a second term.

The United Nations human rights chief is reportedly warning that large-scale protests in Venezuela could give way to violence, after the Venezuelan National Assembly announced a takeover of executive power from Maduro on Tuesday.

Venezuela's Catholic bishops voiced support for peaceful opposition demonstrations across the country Wednesday, though at least 20 people have been shot dead by security forces. At one point more than 700 protestors were besieged in the cathedral of Maturin.

At one of these marches in Caracas, opposition leader and head of the National Assembly Juan Guaido declared himself interim president, and several countries including the U.S., Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Costa Rica have recognized him as the country's leader.

Alessandro Gisotti, interim Holy See press officer, said Jan. 24 that Pope Francis "is praying for the victims and for all the people of Venezuela," and that "the Holy See supports all efforts that help save the population from further suffering".

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