CARTAGENA: Pope Francis prayed on Sunday (Sep 10) for a peaceful end to Venezuela's "grave crisis" which has left scores dead, as he wrapped up a tour to support peace in neighbouring Colombia.
The Argentine pope, 80, spoke during a prayer service in Cartagena, one of Colombia's top tourist draws but also one of its poorest cities, on the last day of his tour of the country.
"I assure all of you of my prayers for each of the countries of Latin America, and in a special way for neighboring Venezuela," Francis said.
"I appeal for the rejection of all violence in political life and for a solution to the current grave crisis, which affects everyone, particularly the poorest and most disadvantaged of society."
'POPE SHOULD INTERVENE'
Venezuela's crisis has caused food and medicine shortages and calls for President Nicolas Maduro to quit.
Clashes with security forces at anti-government protests left 125 people dead from April to July.
The Vatican tried to mediate in negotiations last year between Venezuela's government and opposition. The talks broke down with the sides accusing each other of bad faith.
Thousands of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to escape the crisis.
"We could ask the pope to intervene directly for dialogue," said Venezuelan housewife Nancy Pugliese, 35, who attended Francis's visit in Cartagena. "We need all the spiritual support we can get to free Venezuela ... The pope should tell President Maduro directly to listen to the people."
On Sunday, Venezuela's centre right-led opposition was holding a vote to choose candidates for regional governorship elections scheduled for October.
The opposition MUD coalition and international powers have accused Maduro of stifling democracy by taking over power from state institutions.
Francis met in Bogota on Thursday with Venezuelan bishops, who warned him that priests and nuns had faced threats in their country.
They said in a statement that they "informed him about the worsening of the crisis and the radicalisation of the government's stance."
The statement said Francis "expressed his concern for the worsening of the humanitarian crisis."
PRAYING FOR THE POOR
Francis was due to fly back to Rome on Sunday evening after a four-city tour of Colombia.
During his visit, he pleaded for lasting peace in Colombia as it moves toward the end of a half-century civil war.
In Cartagena, he visited the impoverished district of San Francisco, where he blessed the foundations of a new homeless shelter.
"We have a lot of faith in Francis's visit to this forgotten district," said Willy Martinez, a 43-year-old bricklayer.
"Here, there are lots of people who only eat once a day. The worst thing is the corruption - that is worse than the bullets of the guerrillas or the paramilitaries."
Francis prayed in the name of local holy figures, including Saint Peter Claver, the patron saint of slaves, who lived in this colonial port city during the slave trade.
They "invite us to work to promote the dignity of all our brothers and sisters, particularly the poor and the excluded of society," he said. "Those who are abandoned, immigrants and those who suffer violence and human trafficking."
POPE GETS 'BASHED'
Earlier, Francis got a cut on his brow and blood on his white cape when he bumped into the window of his Popemobile.
He was standing up in the specially designed vehicle, waving to admirers, when it braked sharply and he collided with the glass.
He was seen later with a bruise on his cheek and a small dressing on his brow, but still smiling. "I got bashed," he joked to reporters.