December 15, 2009 Volume 23, Number 19
Chavez attacks Venezuelan churches
Authoritarian leader attacks moral opposition
By Geoffrey P. Johnston | Special to ChristianWeek
Worshippers celebrate mass at the Archdiocese of Merida. PHOTO: AID TO THE CHURCH IN NEED
Over the last eleven years, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has undertaken a series of radical political reforms that have transformed Venezuela from a liberal democracy to a socialist state.
As the increasingly authoritarian Latin American leader implements what he calls "21st century socialism," Christian organizations are finding it difficult to operate in Venezuela.
According to the 2009 annual report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent panel that advises the U.S. government on religious liberty around the globe, Venezuelan "religious communities and leaders viewed as political opponents are routinely targeted and harassed by government officials."
Chavez frequently lashes out at the Roman Catholic Church in Venezuela. He has publicly derided the Church as a "tumour" and dismissed Catholic leaders as "mental retards."
Approximately 85 per cent of Venezuela's 26.5 million people are Roman Catholic, according to a soon-to-be published manuscript by Latin America expert David Myers. Myers, a professor at Penn State University, made an advance copy "Venezuela: Can Democracy Survive Electoral Caudillsmo?" available to ChristianWeek.
Why is this president attacking the denomination to which most Venezuelans belong?
"In this country, the Church has been under pressure only because the Church itself has put pressure on the government when human rights or human values have been violated," answers Xavier Legorreta, the Latin America projects coordinator for Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), an international Catholic charity that serves persecuted and needy churches around the world.
Flirting with Protestantism
After escaping a failed 2002 coup attempt, Chavez grew increasingly antagonistic toward the Catholic Church. He alleged that Catholic leaders conspired with the political opposition and the United States to overthrow him.
"This led President Chavez into a brief flirtation with evangelical Protestantism," Myers writes.
The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada reports that the number of Venezuelans who identify themselves as evangelical Christians jumped from one million people in 1990 to 2.5 million in 2000.
Levine explains that Chavez attempted to accelerate the growth of evangelical denominations by giving them "public recognition" during his first term in office, which had the desired effect of alarming the Catholic Church.
But Chavez's support for evangelicals ended abruptly in 2005, notes Myers, "when Pat Robertson, a well known fundamentalist preacher in the United States, suggested on his 700 Club television program that President Bush should use the Central Intelligence Agency to 'take out' the Venezuelan leader."
Chavez responded to Robertson's assassination commentary by expelling the New Tribes Mission from Venezuela, accusing the American missionary group of being "agents of imperialist penetration" and of spying for the United States.
The Chavez government now exercises tighter control over visas for all foreign missionaries working in Venezuela. According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, "rates of refusal for first-time applicants have increased and rates of renewals have decreased, particularly for groups based in the U.S.A."
The traditional branch of Venezuela's Catholic Church faces a different kind of challenge, this one from the upstart Reformed Catholic Church of VenezuelaAnglican Rite. The breakaway sect was established in 2007 under the guidance of Leonardo Marin-Saavedra, the archbishop of the Latin American Anglican Church.
The Venezuelan Catholic Bishops' Conference has condemned the sect for supposedly confusing Catholics. According to a 2008 report from the Catholic News Agency, archbishop Roberto Luckert, the vice president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference, alleged that clergy from the sect "dress like [Catholic] priests, baptize and confirm, with everything paid for by the government, which seeks to destroy the Catholic Church and has not been able to do so."
The Reformed Catholic Church has been compared to the politically radical Latin American churches that adopted leftist "liberation theology" at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.
But does the Chavez government underwrite his ministries?
"[The] government of Venezuela don't give me money," insists Marin-Saavedra, who currently resides in London, Ontario. "The government never [gave] me money."
But a source at the Anglican Church of Canada describes Marin-Saavedra's Latin American Anglican Church as "a tiny splinter group which originated in Mexico and has very little presence [or] profile even in the traditional Anglican Communion."
Myers concludes that Venezuelan politics "changed dramatically" after the referendum of February 15, 2009, in which a majority of voters approved a proposal to abolish term limits on all elected officials, including the office of president, paving the way for Chavez to remain in power indefinitely.
Meanwhile, the ACN's Xavier Legorreta offers a ray of hope: "The Church is the only moral authority in the midst of the ongoing difficulties" in Venezuela, he says.
Geoffrey P. Johnston is an independent journalist based in Ontario.