Militarization concerns Venezuela bishops

Caracas, Venezuela - Roman Catholic leaders Wednesday criticized what they called the militarization of Venezuelan society and the persecution of government opponents.

The comments the Venezuelan bishops' conference are the latest by a church body that has been among President Hugo Chavez's most vocal critics, accusing him of accumulating too much power.

"Venezuela is seeing with astonishment and moral disapproval the promotion of a war-like environment and the militarization of society, including the creation of civilian militias," said Bishop Ovidio Perez, reading from a document outlining the concerns of the Venezuelan bishops' conference.

Chavez, a former paratroop commander, frequently urges Venezuelans to prepare for a possible U.S. invasion. He also has armed civilian groups that are trained by military advisers for a guerrilla-style resistance war.

Critics of Chavez say the real goal of the mobilization is to create the means to suppress internal dissent and defend Chavez's presidency at all costs. Thousands of Territorial Guard volunteers - housewives, students, construction workers - are undergoing training.

The Venezuelan president, who has in the past called the Catholic leadership a "tumor," has said he wants good relations with the church. He regularly quotes from the Bible and often says Christ was a socialist and a revolutionary.

More than 90 percent of Venezuela's 26 million population is Roman Catholic, and church leaders and local priests wield tremendous influence over many of its citizens.

The bishops' conference also condemned alleged "persecution and discrimination for reasons related to ideological discrepancies," including the imprisonment of government opponents for "activities tied to their political positions."