July 13, 2005

Venezuela’s Chavez hits back at Catholic critics

By Pascal Fletcher

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez accused Roman Catholic bishops on Wednesday of opposing
his left-wing rule and being "out of touch with reality" after
they questioned his populist policies.

The firebrand nationalist has clashed publicly in the past
with Catholic Church leaders he accuses of siding with the rich
against his self-styled "revolution" in Venezuela, which he
says is using the country's oil wealth to help the poor.

Chavez said he had complained this week about the attitude
of local bishops to Apostolic Nuncio Monsignor Giacinto
Berloco, who presented his credentials as the new Vatican
ambassador to the predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

"I said to him, look Monsignor, I am Catholic Christian,
and I find it difficult to understand the behavior of the
Catholic Church elite in Venezuela," Chavez said angrily.

"The Catholic hierarchy never gets tired of attacking this
government, this revolution," he said during a ceremony in
Caracas to distribute housing contracts.

It was Chavez's strongest attack against local Catholic
Church leaders since Pope Benedict was appointed following the
death of Pope John Paul in April.

The latest outburst followed a statement Tuesday from the
Venezuelan bishops in which, while welcoming government
anti-poverty policies, they expressed fears these were being
corrupted by "political clientelism and misuse of funds."

"One can still hear the clamor of so many people who are
deprived of the most basic rights of food, health, housing,
work and public services," the bishops said.


They also expressed concern that opponents of the
government had been detained "out of revenge and to punish

The bishops criticized an increasing "warlike discourse and
militarization" in Venezuela, an apparent reference to Chavez's
moves to arm the nation against what he says is the threat of
an attack by the United States. Washington denies any threat.

Chavez said the bishops were wrong and "out of touch with

"There has been no other government in Venezuela, and I say
this with all humility, that has been closer ... to the mandate
of Christ," he said.

Leading bishops have frequently accused the Venezuelan
leader of stirring up divisive political and social conflicts
in the world's No. 5 oil exporter.

Some have even accused him of trying to introduce an
atheistic communist ideology they say threatens traditional
Catholic teaching.

Chavez, who often quotes from the scriptures and sometimes
brandishes a miniature crucifix during his fiery speeches, has
described his high-ranking Catholic critics as "a tumor" and
"devils in cassocks."

The president, who vows to convert Venezuela from
capitalism to "a new socialism," says his government's programs
to provide free health, education and job training for the poor
are in line with Christian teaching.

"Socialism is the theory of Christ ... Love one another,"
Chavez said.

"That's the reality, but these bishops refuse to accept it
... May God forgive them," he added.