February 14, 2006

US evangelicals lose Venezuelan court appeal

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuela's top court on
Tuesday upheld a government decision against a U.S. evangelical
group which President Hugo Chavez had ordered out of the
country last year after accusing them of spying.

Venezuela's Supreme Court rejected an appeal filed by the
New Tribes Mission to block a government order that revoked a
1953 permit allowing them to carry out evangelical work in the
country's indigenous communities.

New Tribes Mission representatives were not immediately
available for comment. But spokesman Mike Griffis said before
the announcement that the organization would "abide by any
decision from the court, and evaluate our options legally."

Chavez, a fierce opponent of the U.S. government, ordered
the New Tribes out in October just days after conservative U.S.
preacher Pat Robertson accused him of funding Osama Bin Laden
and seeking nuclear material from Iran. Chavez dismissed those
charges as ridiculous.

The group last week completed an evacuation of 40
missionaries operating in indigenous territories, transporting
them to the eastern Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz. The New
Tribes Mission has approximately 80 people in Venezuela.

"We continue to hope that these tribal peoples receive
attention that they need in all aspects, whether it be
spiritual, medical or educational," Griffis said.

Shortly after Chavez ordered out the New Tribes, about 200
Mormon missionaries abandoned Venezuela because of what U.S.
officials said were security worries. Church officials said
they reassigned missionaries due to visa difficulties.

Chavez has promised a socialist revolution to end poverty
in Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter. But Washington
has criticized him for increasing ties to nations like Cuba and
Iran, and describes his government as a menace to the region.

Venezuela and the United States are mired in a diplomatic
dispute over charges U.S. embassy staff were involved in
espionage. Caracas and Washington expelled diplomats earlier
this month.