US evangelicals lose Venezuelan court appeal

Caracas, Venezuela - Venezuela's top court on Tuesday upheld a government decision against a U.S. evangelical group which President Hugo Chavez had ordered out of the country last year after accusing them of spying.

Venezuela's Supreme Court rejected an appeal filed by the New Tribes Mission to block a government order that revoked a 1953 permit allowing them to carry out evangelical work in the country's indigenous communities.

New Tribes Mission representatives were not immediately available for comment. But spokesman Mike Griffis said before the announcement that the organization would "abide by any decision from the court, and evaluate our options legally."

Fernando Andrade, the group attorney, explained to Reuters that the court disclaimed only the preemptive measure against eviction and a final order is still pending on a petition to make null and void the government directive.

"The court conceded the claim, opened the trial that will last five or six months, but the preemptive measure was not granted," he said.

Chavez, a fierce opponent of the U.S. government, ordered the New Tribes out in October just days after conservative U.S. preacher Pat Robertson accused him of funding Osama Bin Laden and seeking nuclear material from Iran. Chavez dismissed those charges as ridiculous.

The group last week completed an evacuation of 40 missionaries operating in indigenous territories, transporting them to the eastern Venezuelan city of Puerto Ordaz. The New Tribes Mission has approximately 80 people in Venezuela.

"We continue to hope that these tribal peoples receive attention that they need in all aspects, whether it be spiritual, medical or educational," Griffis said.

Shortly after Chavez ordered out the New Tribes, about 200 Mormon missionaries abandoned Venezuela because of what U.S. officials said were security worries. Church officials said they reassigned missionaries due to visa difficulties.

Chavez has promised a socialist revolution to end poverty in Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter. But Washington has criticized him for increasing ties to nations like Cuba and Iran, and describes his government as a menace to the region.

Venezuela and the United States are mired in a diplomatic dispute over charges U.S. embassy staff were involved in espionage. Caracas and Washington expelled diplomats earlier this month.