Chávez Creates Divide Among Evangelicals

Caracas, Venezuela - Every Sunday, Ana González wears one of her best suits to attend Las Acacias, the largest evangelical Christian church in Caracas.

And each week, four days later, she laces up combat boots and tucks her hair into an olive green military cap to report for duty with Venezuela's army reserves, a foot soldier in President Hugo Chávez's military.

"I believe in Jesus Christ because he was a revolutionary," said González, 47. "I follow Chávez because I believe in the things Chávez is doing. He is also a revolutionary."

González and her husband, Francisco Melo, 49, met at Las Acacias eight years ago. Now, while they attend church and volunteer in the reserves, doing everything from target practice to issuing government-subsidized vaccines, González says they are among a shrinking group at Las Acacias who consider themselves "Chavistas" -- followers of Chávez.

At a time when evangelical Christianity is growing in Venezuela, the ranks of González's church and others have fractured over politics. Church members say they are caught between admiration for a president who flaunts biblical references and a growing concern that he will muzzle those who don't preach his brand of politics.

"A lot of people have left Las Acacias because the pastor identifies with the opposition," González said. "Many Chavistas have said, 'We're not coming here anymore.' "

But González and her husband stayed, if only to reach more Christians for Chávez

"We have to pray for the opposition," she said.

Ahead of a Dec. 2 referendum on vast revisions to Venezuela's constitution, this country has become even more polarized politically. Opponents of the proposed changes, which would eliminate presidential term limits and promote the government's ability to seize private property, have marched through city streets in demonstrations that have turned violent.

At a recent pro-government march, Chávez threatened to raze "to the ground" eastern Caracas, widely considered an opposition stronghold.

In Chávez's fight to bring Venezuelans into the fold of his "socialist revolution," churches have become important battlegrounds. Many pastors here say they avoid talking politics, but admit that the issues riveting the nation don't stop at the church doors. The question has become not whether to follow Christ, but whether to also follow Chávez.

The president routinely invokes religion. Last year, he celebrated his reelection by reading a biblical passage describing the communal lifestyles of first-century Christians. He has also frequently mentioned that his revolution will create a "new man," an echo of a theme of the Apostle Paul's New Testament Epistles.

"Chávez is a Christian, I have no doubt," said Carmelo Ílvarez, a Puerto Rican preacher who has worked with pastors in Venezuela through the Evangelical Pentecostal Union.

The Roman Catholic Church has long held the most sway in Venezuelan politics, but Chávez has changed that, Ílvarez said. Now, Catholic leaders are among Chávez's most outspoken critics, even though their congregants, like much of the country, are politically divided.

Shortly after Chávez was first elected in 1998, he slashed state subsidies to the Catholic Church -- by up to 80 percent, according to some estimates.

Chávez speaks often of his Catholic upbringing but now he extols the benefits of many religions, including belief in María Lionza, an indigenous saint with a growing cult following.

Three years ago, the Renacer Church, a Pentecostal congregation in downtown Caracas, received nearly $100,000 for its nonprofit foundation from the Chávez government, said pastor Jesús Pérez.

Pérez expects more money from the government in the future. "The wealth in Venezuela should be for everyone, not just for a small group," Pérez said.

In 2002, when the president won back control of the government after a violent two-day coup, Pérez accepted an invitation to appear on state-run television to revel in what he called the "divine intervention" that restored a "free Venezuela."

"There is more freedom now for Christians than ever before," Pérez said after dancing with his congregation for more than two hours during a Sunday morning service.

Pérez insists he's never used his pulpit for politics, but said his church members follow Chávez "because Chávez has recognized them."

The Rev. Samuel Olson, senior pastor at Las Acacias and head of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela, suspects that Chávez's Bible-laced rhetoric is an indication not of faith, but of political savvy.

"He's everything to everybody," Olson said. "He talks about Jesus, but he also talks about Father Fidel" Castro.

Now, as Chávez encourages all Venezuelans to join the military reserves in preparation for the day when the country must defend itself against forces he labels "capitalist imperialists," Christians are struggling to come to terms with their own faith and how it informs their political opinions.

"People are going through a profound questioning of their conscience," Olson said.

Olson was born in Venezuela to American missionaries and has lived in Caracas most of his life. Some have left his church because he is believed to be an opposition leader -- a title Olson rejects.

The accusation stems from his participation in a memorial service for those killed in the 2002 coup, he said. Olson stood on a platform used days before for an opposition rally, "so I became opposition," he said.

Olson said he doesn't know how many people have left Las Acacias to avoid the appearance of associating with the opposition.

"Those people are more politically inclined than being true to their own faith," he said.

At the same time, upper-class Venezuelans, those characterized by Chávez as the "oligarchy," tend to avoid evangelical churches, including Las Acacias, because they fear being identified with the Chavista movement, which has support from pro-government pastors such as Pérez.

"In these times, it's easy to despair," said Pilar Rottner, an American who has lived in Venezuela for 23 years. Rottner has attended United Christian Church in Caracas for the past two decades and has served as the church's council president for the past four years.

Rottner said she prays for Chávez "constantly."

"I feel it helps make me a stronger Christian if I try not to feel any ill will toward him," she said. "We have not felt any political pressure toward our church, but we're also very careful to keep a low profile."

Olson's church, which boasts nearly 5,000 members, can't avoid the spotlight. Already, Las Acacias is under surveillance, Olson said, its Web site monitored and church leaders' phones tapped.

The church is preparing for a time when the government shuts its doors. Already, members have divided themselves into groups based on where they live. If the government shutters the church, each group will have its own pastor and support staff. Las Acacias will be able to survive, Olson said.

"One has to be very sensitive because there are Christians who still believe that the essence of this revolution is equality," he said. "But as the picture unfolds, people are starting to ask questions."