Venezuela VP defends missionary expulsion

Caracas, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuela's vice president on Thursday defended a decision to expel a U.S.-based Christian missionary group from the country, saying members of the New Tribes Mission had links to the CIA — a charge the organization strongly denied.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel spoke a day after President Hugo Chavez announced he was ordering the group to leave, citing U.S. "imperialist infiltration."

"We have intelligence reports that some of them are CIA," Rangel said. "The president's decision was based on reports that their actions create situations that compromise the country's sovereignty."

Nita Zelenak, a spokeswoman at New Tribes Mission's headquarters in Sanford, Fla., denied any CIA links and said the group knows nothing about "strategic information" that Chavez accused it of gathering.

"I really didn't have any idea what he might be talking about," Zelenak said. "When you consider the people that we're with, there really isn't any sense of strategic information they would have."

The group says it has about 160 personnel in Venezuela, including about 30 Venezuelans. Zelenak said the organization didn't plan to remove its missionaries immediately and would try to convince Chavez to reconsider.

Chavez accused the missionaries of building luxurious camps next to impoverished Indian villages and circumventing Venezuelan authorities as they freely flew in and out on private planes.

Zelenak defended the housing arrangements, saying "the homes are dramatically less than what they would have here in the United States."

Rangel said the decision was related to other moves to reclaim Venezuela's "sovereignty," such as a decision to suspend cooperation with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in August after Chavez accused agents of spying.

U.S. officials denied it, and subsequently chastised Venezuela for what they say has been a failure to combat drug trafficking. Chavez called that a political ploy, saying Venezuela is making strides in counterdrug work.

The New Tribes Mission, founded in 1942, specializes in evangelism among indigenous groups and has 3,200 workers in 17 nations.

Rangel said the Justice Ministry was working on a plan to expel the group in a "peaceful" way and was not threatening missionaries.

The group said recent comments by U.S. religious broadcaster Pat Robertson calling for Chavez's assassination had prompting intensified government investigations into their work. It also posted a statement on the site condemning Robertson's remarks, for which he later apologized.