CARACAS A wave of vandalism against sacred images has shocked Venezuelans and sparked finger-pointing between the two sides of the bitter political divide characterizing President Hugo Chavez's rule.
Most of the vandalism has been directed against statues and images of the "Divine Shepherdess" -- a local patron saint whose annual festival is one of Latin America's biggest.
Most shockingly, what seems to be a bullet-hole has pierced the cheek of one statue of the Shepherdess in the western state of Lara, while her attending sheep have been smashed.
Among dozens of such desecrations in the last few weeks, the statue of a saintly doctor, Jose Gregorio Hernandez, was decapitated in Yaracuy state, while another sculpture of the "Coromoto Virgin" had her hands chopped off.
Red paint has been sprayed over various images.
"These are utterly horrible events that offend the Catholic sentiment of the Venezuelan people," senior Catholic leader Monsignor Jesus Gonzalez de Zarate told local TV.
No suspects have been caught and some think a "satanic" cult may be responsible -- but many Venezuelans suspect politics may be to blame for the mystery vandalism.
Though often proclaiming his Catholicism and using religious language in speeches, the socialist Chavez has lambasted the church's hierarchy throughout his 12 years in power as being aligned with Venezuela's rich and elite.
He has never forgiven Catholic leaders for their perceived blessing of a 2002 coup that briefly toppled him.
Chavez's Interior Minister Tareck El Aissami vowed to punish those behind the vandalism and said he suspects government foes were trying to discredit it.
"Historically, these are practices of the fascist ultra-right," he told reporters, saying that under Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile religious symbols were also desecrated to try to discredit left-wing movements.
"If any government has respected religious liberty, the churches, and faith, it is this one," he said.
Many opposition supporters, though, say the attacks are the work of left-wing extremists from the most militant ranks of Chavez's supporters.
"The precedents for these anti-Catholic excesses in the history of the left are much more extensive than those of the right," opposition newspaper Tal Cual said in a front-page editorial calling for the "Satan among us" to be caught.
Editorialist Fernando Rodriguez added that the atheist nature of Marxism, past violence by pro-Chavez bands, and the president's vitriol against Catholic leaders, were other reasons to suspect his supporters.
(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)