Venezuelan Church Defends Political Role

Venezuela's Roman Catholic Church on Thursday defended its aggressive role in national politics and accused supporters of President Hugo Chavez of plotting to create divisions within the church and discredit its leaders.

Church leaders "cannot be spectators" in Venezuela's political crisis, said Monsignor Baltazar Porras, president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference. "This is an issue that concerns the entire society, not just politicians."

Porras spoke at the opening ceremony of the Episcopal Conference's annual assembly.

Porras said Chavez allies were trying to portray "bishops, priests and laypersons as people without morals, (as) thieves" to alienate church followers from leaders and provoke "a crisis in the church."

Porras didn't elaborate. But Venezuela's church has clashed with Chavez's leftist government on several occasions and claimed Chavez is trying to impose communism. Chavez has called the church a "tumor."

Earlier this week, government supporters disrupted the wake and funeral of Cardinal Ignacio Velasco, a government critic who died early Monday after a long battle with cancer at the age of 74.

At the assembly, Porras urged a swift resolution to Venezuela's crisis, which over the past year has triggered a failed military coup and long, crippling general strike.

"We cannot move forward without respect and coexistence. It's urgent to bridge the chasm currently dividing Venezuelan society," Porras said.

Traditional institutions like labor unions and the church accuse Chavez of accumulating power and ruining the economy.

Chavez says coups and strikes are the inevitable growing pains of his "revolution" to liberate Venezuela from a corrupt political class insensitive to the needs of the poor.