Religion in the News

Caracas, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez calls Jesus a guiding light for his self-styled socialist revolution.

But his relationship with the Roman Catholic Church is complicated and sometimes strained. Even as the leftist leader has invited Catholic priests to share their ideas on transforming Venezuela into a socialist state, he has clashed with some priests who are critical of him - and in one case declared that a Venezuelan archbishop is bound for hell.

Nonetheless, Chavez says he wants the best relations with the church and has recently spoken by phone with some supportive priests during his near-daily radio broadcasts. The church leadership's tone toward Chavez has varied over the years from cordiality to open hostility.

"The Catholic Church, its priests at all levels, (should) take a step toward the forefront of the debate... You are welcome in the debate on building socialism, our socialism," Chavez said in his radio address on Tuesday.

Chavez has lashed out, however, at Monsignor Roberto Luckert, who has warned that Venezuela is headed for communism and that the shift could infringe on freedoms. In a January speech, Chavez accused Luckert, the archbishop of Coro, of telling lies and living an ungodly privileged life.

Chavez said the priest is doomed to go to hell - to which Luckert responded: "It seems he's going to hell, too."

The Venezuelan leader peppers his speeches with Bible verses and often describes his political movement as a struggle between good and evil, such as when he famously called U.S. President George W. Bush "the devil" in a speech to the United Nations last year.

At home, Luckert has been one of the most outspoken critics of Chavez. The archbishop recently told Venezuela's Union Radio that, while Chavez gives sermon-like speeches, his government is spending money lavishly. Just as Chavez urged him to live more humbly, Luckert replied that "I invite him to take a dugout canoe (instead of the presidential jet) and go to Nicaragua."

Chavez said Tuesday that despite Luckert's hostility, "he isn't going to get us fighting with the Catholic Church." He added: "We are true Catholics and friends of the majority of priests and bishops."

Most Venezuelans are Catholic and the church wields tremendous influence among parishioners, giving particular sting to the barbs exchanged periodically between Chavez, Luckert and some other church leaders.

"There has to be respect," said churchgoer Cesar Milano, who visited Caracas' San Francisco Church to pray while passers-by paused to cross themselves at the doorway. "I hope they reach an understanding for the good of us all."

Leading bishops in the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference have called for a style of socialism that upholds free speech, tolerates opposing views and respects religious education.

Chavez assures them they have nothing to fear.

"Christianity is essentially socialist, so no one - no Christian, no Catholic - should be alarmed," said Chavez, who was once an altar boy and says his brand of socialism will not copy Soviet or Cuban communism despite his close friendship with Fidel Castro.

Chavez says if he had not entered politics, he would have loved to be a priest. He calls Jesus an exemplary revolutionary and often recalls the Bible passage that declares it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Chavez, who was first elected in 1998, has promised a renewed drive to create a socialist system and help the poor following his re-election in December.

The entirely pro-Chavez National Assembly granted him sweeping powers in January to pass laws by decree for 18 months in areas from the economy to defense. While Chavez has since moved to nationalize electrical and phone companies and take majority control of several privately-run oil projects, he also has insisted private property and personal freedoms will be respected.

He snapped at church leaders in January when they expressed concern about a government decision not to renew the broadcast license of opposition-sided TV channel RCTV.

Chavez pointedly told top Vatican representative Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino in one speech: "The state respects the church. The church should respect the state."

Urosa and other bishops say they want a respectful dialogue that allows for disagreement. And Urosa has bristled at the suggestion that Jesus was a pioneering socialist.

"His purpose on earth was not to establish or institute systems - whether socialist, republican, democratic - nor much less was he a precursor of socialist ideas. That confusion should end," Urosa was quoted as saying by the newspaper El Nacional.

Meanwhile, some priests have increasingly been speaking up in favor of Chavez's ideals.

Monsignor Edgar Doria said he thinks Chavez shares Christian principles like social justice and equality, and that the church can be a key ally in social programs for the poor.

Bishop Mario Moronta wrote in a recent letter, widely published in Venezuelan media, that the church has a role to play in discussing the "21st Century Socialism" espoused by Chavez.

"We are called to participate in just efforts to overcome poverty," Moronta wrote. "Every Catholic and person of good will has much to contribute."