Chávez rebukes church for cardinal's criticism

Caracas, Venezuela - Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez on Sunday blasted the country's only cardinal, who used a major religious ceremony to accuse him of acting despotically and endangering one of South America's oldest democracies.

Chávez demanded that the country's Roman Catholic hierarchy formally distance itself from the accusations that Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara made Saturday before hundreds of thousands of people attending the procession honoring a virgin known as the ''Divine Shepherdess'' in the city of Barquisimeto, 180 miles west of Caracas.

Castillo, 83, told worshipers that Chávez's administration ``has lost its democratic course and presents the semblance of a dictatorship.''

''Almost all the branches [of government] are in the hands of just one person,'' said Castillo, who has increasingly criticized the president's populist policies and close relations with communist-led Cuba.

The president of the Venezuelan Roman Catholic Bishops Conference, Archbishop Ubaldo Santana, appeared to distance the bishops from Castillo's remarks on Sunday, telling Union Radio that Castillo didn't belong to the group and was ``giving opinions just like any another citizen.''