01/06/2013 01:06 EST | Updated 03/08/2013 05:12 EST

Athletes pray for recovery of Venezuela's Chavez amid growing concerns over leader's health

CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuelan athletes prayed on Sunday for the recovery of President Hugo Chavez amid growing concerns over the socialist leader's health.

Formula One driver Pastor Maldonado, IndyCar Series driver Ernesto Jose Viso and other pro-Chavez athletes attended a Mass at a church in downtown Caracas on Sunday to pray for the ailing president. Athletes wearing jackets with the colours and stars of Venezuela's flag stood before an altar, solemnly reciting prayers.

The government revealed last week that Chavez is fighting a severe lung infection and receiving treatment for "respiratory deficiency."

Chavez hasn't spoken or appeared publicly since his Dec. 11 operation in Cuba, his fourth surgery for an undisclosed type of pelvic cancer. Speculation about the leader's condition has grown since the operation.

Maldonado, who is sponsored by Venezuela's state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, expressed confidence that Chavez would soon recover and return to Venezuela.

The F1 driver said he hoped "very soon (Chavez) is here with all of us."

Viso said he and millions of other Chavez supporters have "much faith that he's recovering."

"We wish him the best," Viso said.

Luis Alfredo Mendoza, a retired professional soccer player-turned-coach, credited Chavez for doing much more than previous presidents to promote and support the South American nation's sports programs.

"He's always been mindful of supporting all the disciplines, not just soccer," Mendoza said, according to the state-run AVN news agency.