Former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, the United States' top religious freedom diplomat, has condemned Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro for claiming two priests who highlighted the horrific economic struggles of the nation in a sermon are "devils in cassocks."
Brownback, a Republican who left his Kansas post when he was confirmed as the new State Department ambassador at-large for international religious freedom in January, spoke at the headquarters of the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Friday during a conference focusing on the genocide of Christians.
While Brownback touched on various religious freedom issues across the globe, he devoted some time in his speech to touch on the situation happening in Venezuela.
"We have seen president Maduro attack the leaders of the Catholic Church for pointing out the obvious," Brownback warned during his speech. "The leaders are saying, 'Look, we lack food and we can't get a hold of medicine.' For that, Maduro is calling them the 'Bishops of Satan' and attacking the Catholic Church for stating the obvious."
In January, Maduro targeted two Catholic priests who delivered homilies critical of the woeful state of the nation by calling for an investigation against Archbishop of Barquisimeto, Antonio López Castillo and the Bishop of San Felipe, Víctor Hugo Basabe and accusing them of "hate crimes."
The priests' critical comments came as many Venezuelan citizens have gone hungry, lost alarming amounts of weight and have poor access to medicine.
The president not only referred to the two priests as "devils in cassocks" but also reportedly called the Catholic Church in the country "full of evil, poison, hatred, perversion and slander."
Maduro claims that the priests violated a recently passed law called "Constitutional Law against hatred, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance."
Critics say the law was passed by a government entity made up entirely of the president's supporters last November to silence criticism.
Brownback assured in his Heritage Foundation speech that the only reason the Catholic Church in Venezuela is being attacked by Maduro is because they are merely stating facts about the conditions in their country.
"Last year I saw some stat that the average Venezuelan lost 24 pounds," Brownback said in disbelief. "Maybe we could use that in this country ... but they certainly can't use it there."
In the wake of Maduro's remarks, a cathedral in Cumaná was targeted by pro-socialist activists, who defaced the property by spray painting slogans critical of Monsignor Diego Padrón.
According to Breitbart, Padrón signed a letter supporting the two priests targeted by Maduro. The vandals reportedly spray painted the slogans, "Monsignor Satan," "Monsignor Pimp," "Monsignor Padrón Out."
Maduro was also condemned for his targeting of the priests and the Catholic Church by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley.
"Maduro's reign of violence, repression, corruption and bankruptcy continues to punish the Venezuelan people," Haley said in a statement. "By targeting religious leaders — who promote peace and provide hope for believers — the regime continues to show that it cares only for preserving its own power and cares nothing about the basic human rights and welfare of its citizens."