October 14, 2005

US rejects Chavez missionary spy charges

By Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - The United States on Friday
rejected charges by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that
members of a U.S. evangelist group were working as spies and
urged authorities to start talks with the missionaries.

Chavez this week ordered the U.S.-based New Tribes Mission
expelled from Venezuela after accusing its members of working
with the CIA and engaging in "imperialist" infiltration in his
latest barrage against the United States.

"I can categorically deny that," U.S. Ambassador to Caracas
William Brownfield told reporters when asked about the spy
charges. "I still hope we can have direct talks between the
mission and the government to resolve their differences."

Chavez's announcement came just days after conservative
U.S. preacher Pat Robertson attacked the left-wing Venezuelan
leader for the second time this year by accusing him of funding
Osama Bin Laden and seeking atomic material from Iran.

Venezuela brushed off his remarks as 'crazy" talk, but
Robertson's call earlier this year for U.S. officials to
assassinate Chavez illustrated the rift between many
conservatives in the United States and the self-described
socialist revolutionary.

Chavez often accuses the United States of plotting his
death or downfall while Washington counters Chavez and Cuban
leader Fidel Castro are using Venezuela's oil wealth to finance
anti-democratic groups in Latin America.

Officials have not specified when the New Tribes Mission
would have to leave Venezuela and offer no proof for the
allegations. Military authorities said on Friday they were
still studying how to remove the missions.

Working in jungles and poor villages, the Florida-based New
Tribes Mission is a Protestant evangelist group specializing in
reaching indigenous people in remote regions worldwide. The
group has been in Venezuela for 59 years.

"We are funded by churches and individuals who are
interested in what we are doing, that is the sole source of our
funding," New Tribes representative Nita Zelenak said. "We are
not in any way connected with any government agencies."

New Tribes sends out missionaries to translate scriptures
into indigenous languages and establish "tribal churches" in
countries as diverse as Mongolia and Papua New Guinea,
according to its Website.

Three of its missionaries were kidnapped from a remote
village in Colombia by leftist rebels in 1993 and another was
killed during a 2002 gun battle between Filipino soldiers and
his rebel captors, who Washington linked to Al Qaeda.