Venezuela's Chavez hits back at Catholic critics

Caracas, Venezuela - 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 dissidence."

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 reality."

"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.