Venezuelan Indians protest order expelling U.S. missionary group

Puerto Ayacucho, Venezuela - Hundreds of indigenous Venezuelans marched Friday to protest President Hugo Chavez's order that a group of U.S.-based evangelists leave the country amid intensifying government scrutiny of foreign missionaries operating in the country.

The protesters -- including some who traveled for days by boat from their homes in the dense Amazon jungle -- showed their support for New Tribes Mission, which Chavez has accused of ''imperialist infiltration'' and exploiting indigenous communities.

Tribes defend evangelists

Luis Rodriguez, a Piapoco Indian, said the missionaries helped indigenous tribes during hard times when aid from government authorities was scarce or nonexistent.

''The government didn't arrive here to do anything important for us,'' said Rodriguez, 41, as he marched with fellow demonstrators, some of whom sang hymns.

Two weeks ago, Chavez ordered the New Tribes missionaries to leave the country, accusing the Sanford, Fla.-based group of links to the CIA and gathering strategic information in the country's Amazon rain forest.

Government officials and other critics of the evangelist group have backed Chavez's decision, accusing the missionaries of destroying indigenous culture and using their presence in remote, mineral-rich tracts of Venezuela to conduct reconnaissance work for foreign mining and pharmaceutical interests.

New Tribes has denied the accusations and is seeking a meeting with Chavez to try to resolve the matter, said a New Tribes spokesman, Ronald Van Peursem. He said the group thinks the president has been misinformed about its work in the country.

'We request justice'

Supporters say the missionaries have brought much-needed medical, educational and other assistance to impoverished indigenous communities neglected by the authorities.

''There is no proof of the accusations,'' said Nereo Silva, 45, a leader of the Piaroa tribe in southern Venezuela.

Liborio Guarulla, the governor of Amazonas state, defended Chavez's decision to expel the missionaries, saying ''it's a question of sovereignty.''

Guarulla, a government ally, told the state-run Bolivarian News Agency that past administrations largely ignored indigenous groups and their cultures, but left-leaning Chavez has embraced them.

''Venezuela had a debt with the indigenous cultures . . . it was this government that first truly took them into account,'' he said.

Leaders of seven indigenous groups submitted a statement to Gaurulla's office opposing Chavez's decision.

''We request justice and the right to decide our own future. . . . We demand that we be consulted before any decision,'' it said. ''This is not a fight against the government but a sign of our disagreement with the decision by the president.''

The New Tribes Mission, which has about 160 missionaries in Venezuela, was founded in 1942, specializes in evangelism among indigenous groups and has 3,200 workers worldwide in 17 nations.