By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's opposition leader Henrique Capriles held a private meeting in Rome with Pope Francis on Wednesday and sought his mediation in the South American nation's tumultuous internal politics.
Capriles still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of President Nicolas Maduro after narrowly losing an April election to replace socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who died of cancer.
The OPEC member nation of 29 million people remains polarized between anti- and pro-government factions, with the sides insulting each other daily and preparing to square off again in December local elections.
"The word of the Holy Father for our beloved Venezuela is dialogue, we have asked for his mediation via the church if possible," Capriles, 40, who is the governor of Miranda state, said in a series of Tweets from Rome.
The Vatican confirmed Wednesday's meeting, without giving details.
The opposition leader also said he had sought the Catholic Church's intervention on behalf of "all the political prisoners and exiles" in Venezuela's opposition ranks.
Officials say any opponents in jail or abroad as fugitives of justice are there for legitimate crimes, mainly corruption, rather than political persecution. They accuse Capriles of stirring post-election riots that killed some Maduro supporters.
Venezuelan government supporters, many of whom are calling for Capriles' arrest on charges of fomenting the post-election trouble and neglecting his Miranda constituents while touring the nation, mocked his trip to Italy.
"In less than a week, Capriles has spent 50,000 bolivars (about $8,000 at the official exchange rate) of public funds traveling inside and outside Venezuela, for no reason connected with his job and precisely when he alleges there is no money to pay workers' benefits," said pro-Maduro newspaper Vea.
"Why? ... He continues on his mad path of trying to destabilize the nation, hoping for a social explosion and military coup to bring down Maduro."
In the run-up to nationwide December 8 mayoral elections, Capriles and the opposition Democratic Unity coalition hope to exploit grass-roots discontent over violent crime, shortages of basic goods, and Venezuela's highest-in-the-world annual inflation rate of 50 percent.
Yet millions of Venezuelans depend on state-run social programs, including subsidized food stores, and remain loyal to the memory of "Comandante" Chavez, ensuring support for his chosen successor Maduro.
Even so, the latest poll by local firm Datanalisis, published in local media, said Maduro's approval rating had slipped by about 10 points since his election, to 41 percent at the start of last month.
Among the election paraphernalia springing up is a striking government campaign against Capriles and two other opposition leaders, Maria Corina Machado and Leopoldo Lopez, depicting them in ghostly photos as the "trilogy of evil" bent on wrecking Venezuelans' happiness.
"This is a government that feeds off fear, hatred and lies, and aims to make all Venezuelans live in darkness and division," Capriles said in an open letter he left with the pontiff on Wednesday, urging his mediation.
(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Editing by Vicki Allen)