Church-State Relations Tense in Venezuela

Aide Critical in Wake of Report at CELAM

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CARACAS, Venezuela, MAY 18, 2001 ( A Venezuelan government official openly criticized the country´s Catholic bishops, and then retracted his comments in an effort to renew dialogue.

Secretariat Minister Diosdado Cabello first accused Catholic bishops of being ignorant of the country´s situation and of surrounding themselves with luxury.

His irate remarks followed the release of a document on the situation of Venezuela, at the 28th Latin American bishops´ council (CELAM) assembly being held here.

Bishop Baltazar Porras, president of the Venezuelan bishops´ conference, responded to Cabello´s insults. «When he travels around the country, he should visit episcopal residences and palaces to see how we bishops live,» Bishop Porras said in statements to the newspaper El Universal. «What is readily seen, needs no eyeglasses.»

Cabello apparently had second thoughts and expressed the need to establish contacts «to accept criticisms and implement what is necessary,» El Universal reported today.

The Secretariat Minister said that the top Church leaders in Venezuela «have not found a channel for dialogue,» and offered his services as mediator, «because it seems that a spokesman is lacking between them and the government, and this is the Ministry´s role.»

The bishops´ critical report on the country alludes to the executive´s failure to deliver promises in regard to poverty and crime. It also challenges President Hugo Chávez´s personalist and populist way of governing.

The bishops thus add their voice to those outside the country who accuse the Chávez government of hoarding political power and ignoring others´ point of view.

Church-government relations are increasingly tense, the bishops´ report notes. Although he calls himself a Catholic, the president harshly criticizes the bishops´ leadership and creates divisions, the document states. It adds that Chávez has often called members of the hierarchy who disagree with him «devils.»

The bishops emphasize that Chávez has changed the direction of Venezuela´s international relations, giving special emphasis to countries like Cuba, Iraq and Libya. They add that, although relations with the United States continue to be strong, there have been a number of incidents and tensions.

Bishop Porras said: «I am concerned that none of the points made [in the document] are addressed; instead, all government spokesmen discredit the position of the Church and the conference. The Our Father obliges us to forgive those who offend us, but [what they do] is characteristic of a style that is worrying.»

Bishop Ovidio Pérez Morales, Venezuelan delegate to CELAM, noted that the bishops´ report is a document for internal use and not a statement of the Venezuelan episcopate. Its publication is due to technological progress: in the past, such reports were distributed only to bishops, whereas now they are published on CELAM´s Web page. The bishop asked the government to take note of the the important issues of the document.

«We do not make observations to cause problems, but to improve matters,» he said, reiterating the Church´s willingness to cooperate in fostering dialogue and a culture of tolerance.

Other Latin American bishops attending CELAM´s assembly approved the analysis of their Venezuelan brothers.

Bishop José Ciro González of Pinar del Río, Cuba, said that if President Chávez «adopts the style of the Cuban government, things will not go well; they have gone very badly for us. Not for the Church, but for the nation, which has suffered greatly.»

Likewise, Peruvian Bishop Hugo Garaicoa said, «We have seen very similar things between Fujimori and Chávez. We see an Assembly [congress] very tied to the president, which makes possible legislation that can affect the country.»

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