He was responding after a bishop said the country had a political system that 'denies human dignity'

The President of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, has turned up the heat on the country’s bishops, calling for them to be investigated for “hate crimes”.

Although Mr Maduro did not mention any names in his speech to the Constitutional Assembly, Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional interpreted the remarks as aimed at two bishops in particular: Archbishop Antonio Lopez Castillo of Barquisimeto and Bishop Víctor Basabe of San Felipe.

Both recently preached homilies against corruption, which Mr Maduro took as an implied rebuke to his administration.

Venezuela is struggling through a combined political and economic crisis. Mr Maduro has banned the main opposition parties from taking part in the elections later this year. It is only the latest of the president’s attempts to cement his power by means which opponents say are dictatorial.

Falling oil revenues and economic disorder have led to a disastrous fall in living standards. The Venezuelan Observatory for Social Conflict has claimed that in the first 11 days of January there were violent deaths throughout Venezuela amid 107 episodes of looting.

The Venezuelan bishops’ conference has repeatedly opposed Mr Maduro’s actions as unconstitutional and drawn attention to the lack of food and medicine.

On January 14, the feast of the Divine Shepherdess (a popular Marian feast in Venezuela), Bishop Basabe denounced the “plague” of “so much political corruption that has led Venezuela to moral, economic and social ruin and that is the cause of so much death and destruction in our midst”.

In remarks reported by El Nacional, the bishop explicitly referred to Mr Maduro’s decision to close the “humanitarian corridor” which would have allowed aid from foreign powers.

Bishop Basabe also criticised those “who are determined not to understand that the root cause of Venezuela’s ills is the persistence of an economic, political and social model that denies God and therefore human dignity”.

Archbishop Castillo, meanwhile, drew cheers from a large congregation when he expressed his hope that Venezuela would be saved from corruption.

Mr Maduro responded angrily, describing how a “devil in a cassock” was fomenting “civil war” with remarks which he described as “filth”.

Mr Maduro called for an investigation by the legal authorities, including the Supreme Court and the public prosecutor, under the Law Against Hatred and Fascism, which was passed in November.

Bishop Basabe responded to Mr Maduro in a statement translated by the Catholic News Agency. He said the president had “put words into my mouth”, adding: “How sad it is that a national public official would so scandalously lie in front of the whole country.”

The bishop said he knew his homily “would upset those who deep down in their consciences know they are responsible for the tragedy that this people whom I love is going through”.

Bishop Mario Rodríguez, vice-president of the bishops’ conference, said that the two bishops were only repeating what the Venezuelan episcopate has been saying for some time. Archbishop Castillo said that Pope Francis had phoned to express his support.

Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN, said that “targeting religious leaders” showed that the regime “cares only for preserving its own power”.