The Venezuelan Catholic Church has said that delaying President Hugo Chavez’s inauguration would be a “morally unacceptable” violation of the constitution.
The head of the Venezuelan Conference of Bishops, Diego Padron, said Mr Chavez must attend his inauguration when his term ends on 10 January.
Attorney-General Cilia Flores says the swearing-in can take place later.
The Venezuelan leader is in Cuba where he underwent cancer surgery last month.
Mr Chavez is a “re-elected president not an elected candidate”, said Ms Flores, adding that the key date was 7 October when President Chavez was elected for the fourth time.
The 58-year-old leader, who has been in power since 1999, has not been seen in public since his latest operation last month, and government officials have acknowledged that he has suffered complications caused by a lung infection.
The opposition says that according to the constitution Mr Chavez must take the oath on Thursday or be replaced.
Monsignor Diego Padron said the Venezuelan constitution is very clear.
- Article 231: The president-elect shall take office on 10 January of the first year of their constitutional term, by taking an oath before the National Assembly. If for any reason, (they) cannot be sworn in before the National Assembly, they shall take the oath of office before the Supreme Court.
- Article 233:(…) When there is an absolute absence of the president-elect before taking office, there shall be a new election by universal, direct and secret vote within the next 30 consecutive days. Pending the election and inauguration of the new president, the president of the National Assembly will assume responsibility for the presidency of the Republic.
- If the absence of the president of the Republic occurs during the first four years of the constitutional period, there shall be a new election by universal, direct and secret vote within 30 consecutive days. Pending the election and inauguration of the new president, the executive vice-president will be responsible for the presidency of the Republic.
- Article 234: When the president is temporarily unable to serve, they shall be replaced by the executive vice-president for a period of up to 90 days, which may be extended by resolution of the National Assembly for an additional 90 days.
“On 10 January the current presidential term ends and a new one begins. Otherwise the 7 October vote would make no sense,” he said.
“It is not our job to intervene publically, but in this case the good of the country and the defence of ethics is at stake. To alter the constitution to attain a political objective is morally unacceptable,” added Monsignor Padron.
He also criticised the lack of reliable information on the president’s health.
“Despite the 25 official statements on his health, the head of state has not yet been seen by a Venezuelan doctor. The government has not told the people all the truth.”
Diosdado Cabello, who was re-elected Speaker of the National Assembly on Saturday, dismissed the comments.
“These priests are the same ones who took active part in the 2002 coup attempt against President Chavez,” he said.
Mr Cabello urged Chavez supporters to gather in a big demonstration outside the Miraflores presidential palace on 10 January.
The opposition has also called for a demonstration on Thursday in Caracas.
If Mr Chavez does not take the oath of office, the Speaker of the National Assembly should act as caretaker president until new elections are held within 30 days, they say.
In the absence of President Chavez, Mr Cabello and Mr Maduro are in effect running the country.