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Venezuela tensions brew as Chavez remains ill, absent

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Literature praising Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on sale at a shop in Caracas on Monday. As the date approaches for Chavez to be inaugurated for a new term in office, the president remained out of sight and gravely ill after a complicated cancer surgery in Cuba.

Leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela are warning that the country's stability is at risk amid growing tensions surrounding President Hugo Chavez's long absence after cancer surgery in Cuba.

Catholic leaders in the Venezuelan Bishops Conference said on Monday that conflicting stances by the government and opposition ahead of Chavez's scheduled swearing-in for a new term make for a potentially dangerous and violent situation.

"The nation's political and social stability is at serious risk," said Bishop Diego Padron, the conference's president, reading a statement from the organization.

Venezuela's opposition is accusing the government of violating the constitution by proposing to delay Chavez's inauguration for a new term, slated to take place on Thursday.

The socialist leader's allies say the Jan. 10 inauguration date laid out in the constitution is just a "formality."  They say Chavez, who has not been heard from for almost a month after complex cancer surgery in Cuba, can take office when his health allows.

His adversaries say that would be running roughshod over the constitution as the former soldier remains in Havana and appears too weak to return to Venezuela after winning re-election in October for a third six-year term.

"If the president of the republic does not take office (on Jan. 10), the country cannot be left in a power vacuum," said Tomas Guanipa of the opposition Justice First party, insisting Congress head Diosdado Cabello should be temporarily sworn in.

The dispute centers on an article of the constitution that says a president-elect should be sworn in on Jan. 10 but does not say what happens if the inauguration does not take place that date.

The official position is that Chavez is fulfilling his duties as head of state despite a severe respiratory infection that has at times left him struggling to breathe. He has not been seen in public or in a lived broadcast since his surgery.

The government, which has refused to discuss having Chavez temporarily step aside as he recovers, is providing only terse statements with bare-bones details of his condition.

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Television networks have for days aired contrasting interpretations of the constitutional articles in question, with the opinions of constitutional lawyers and ad hoc experts now filling social networks.

It remains unclear what the opposition intends to do if Chavez doesn't show up on inauguration day.

But National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello warned the opposition not to try to stir up trouble. Speaking to reporters alongside Maduro on Monday, he called for the government's supporters to demonstrate in the streets of Caracas on Thursday.

Cabello also said at a news conference that some foreign leaders would soon visit Venezuela to express solidarity with Chavez. He didn't give details or identify the presidents.

But Cabello also avoided saying whether the inauguration was definitely being put off. Asked if the government now rules out Chavez being able to make it back on time for the inauguration, Cabello said: "We don't rule out absolutely anything at all."

Maduro reiterated the government's view that Chavez may be sworn in before the Supreme Court at a later date. Referring to the Catholic Church's leaders, Maduro said he hopes they "maintain a conduct of respect."

Constitutional expert Roman Duque Corredor, a former Supreme Court magistrate, said the constitution is clear that Chavez's inauguration cannot legally be postponed.

Duque said he believes the Supreme Court should now form a board of doctors to determine the president's condition.

Some opposition politicians also say it's time for such a medical team to travel to Havana to determine whether Chavez is fit to remain in office or not.

Opposition lawmaker Julio Borges said on Monday that Chavez's allies have turned to a convoluted interpretation of the constitution for their political aims while they hold sway in the president's absence.

"We don't know who's governing Venezuela now," Borges told the Venezuelan radio station Union Radio.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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