By Claudio Lavanga and Corky Siemaszko

ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis on Tuesday said the Vatican is ready to step in and help mediate the escalating crisis in Venezuela — like a marriage counselor.

“I will see what can be done, but the initial condition is that it needs to be both sides that ask for it,” Francis told reporters during a press conference on the papal flight back to Rome from his historic two-day visit to the United Arab Emirates. “And we are open to this. It is the same when both sides go to the curate because there is a problem between husband and wife.”

So far, it appears that only President Nicolás Maduro, whose rule is being challenged by the U.S.-backed opposition leader Juan Guaidó, has reached out to the pope.

Francis confirmed that he received a letter from Maduro but has not yet read it. He said diplomatic negotiations to defuse the crisis require a series of “small steps” before mediation can begin — and that both sides have to want mediation for it to work.

“Always both sides,” the pope said. “This is the secret.”

Francis spoke as France, Germany, Poland and seven other European Union countries joined the United States, Canada and Australia in recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate head of state.

Maduro continues to be recognized by Russia and China, the latter of which covets Venezuela’s oil.

The U.S. has long been at odds with Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, the socialist leader who was elected in 1998 and who consolidated power by using the oil boom's revenue to expand social programs for the poor while enriching himself and his cronies.

Chavez died of cancer in 2013 just before oil prices plunged taking the Venezuelan economy down with it.

Maduro was reelected last year in an election that was widely regarded as rigged. And the simmering resentment that followed erupted into a full-blown crisis last month when the Venezuelan National Assembly ruled the election was invalid and declared Guaidó acting president.

President Donald Trump quickly backed Guaidó.

Maduro responded by demanding the U.S. close its embassy in Caracas and ordering all American diplomats out of the country.

Lavanga reported from the Papal plane, Siemaszko from New York City.