Venezuela's Chavez lashes back at cardinal

Caracas, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez has denied an outspoken cardinal's allegation that he is leading Venezuela toward a dictatorship as tensions mounted between the leftist leader and the Roman Catholic Church.

Chavez said anyone who thinks his "revolutionary" government is gradually turning into a dictatorial regime "is crazy enough to be tied up or just ignorant (and) doesn't know what's happening in Venezuela."

The statements made by Chavez in Lima, Peru, where he was attending an Andean summit meeting, were released by his press office in Caracas on Monday. A day earlier, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara said Chavez's administration "has seized control of all the branches of government" in Venezuela.

The cardinal warned that "true democracy" does not exist in Venezuela, and said the president is steering the world's fifth largest oil exporter toward a Cuba-style dictatorship.

"The only solution is democratic, which must involve the resistance of all the people," Castillo Lara said.

The church has been one of the loudest critics of Chavez, a former paratroop commander and self-styled revolutionary. Chavez, in turn, has described the church leadership as a "tumor."

Castillo Lara's comments came after Chavez on his weekly radio program accused the cardinal of siding with Venezuela's "coup-plotting" opposition while neglecting the poor.

Chavez, a close ally of Cuban leader Fidel Castro who frequently tells his supporters that Jesus Christ was a socialist and anti-imperialist, called Castillo Lara "a bandit" who "has the devil inside him."

Eduardo Fernandez, president of the Social Christian Party, criticized Chavez for "using vulgar and offensive language" in referring to "a respectable man who is adored by the Venezuelan people."

After months of keeping a low profile, the country's highest body of Catholic leaders, the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, has recently renewed its criticism of Chavez and his left-leaning government.

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the most trusted institutions in the poverty-stricken South American nation. More than 90 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, and church leaders and local priests wield tremendous influence over many Venezuelans.