Venezuela priests open pro-Chavez church

Caracas, Venezuela - A fledgling church that openly backs President Hugo Chavez is raising the ire of Venezuela's Roman Catholic hierarchy, preaching the Gospel alongside socialism.

Founders of the newly created Reformist Catholic Church of Venezuela, based in the western city of Ciudad Ojeda, say that supporting Chavez's socialist ideals goes hand-in-hand with Christian aims of helping the poor.

"We don't side with any political banner, but we cannot fail to recognize and support the socialist achievements of this government," Enrique Albornoz, a former Lutheran minister who helped start the church, said in a telephone interview on Monday. "We back the social programs of this revolutionary government."

A group of dissident Catholic priests, Lutherans, and Anglicans quietly formed the church several years ago, but its first three bishops were sworn in last weekend, Albornoz said.

The church has five sanctuaries in Venezuela and about 2,000 parishioners - most of them in the oil-rich western state of Zulia, he said. An iron-shuttered, concrete house of worship in a working-class neighborhood of Ciudad Ojeda serves as headquarters for the movement, which borrows heavily from liberation theology and the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer.

Venezuelan Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino accused the reformists of attempting to divide the Catholic Church, which has consistently criticized Chavez's push toward socialism while retaining its status as one of the country's most widely trusted institutions.

"The apparent political goal of this association distances it from the true expression of Christian faith," Urosa Savino said in a statement on Sunday. "Jesus Christ's true church is spreading the word and the gift of Christ to the whole world, separately from political issues and party affiliation."

Monsignor Roberto Luckert, one of Chavez's most outspoken critics, accused the government of financing the new church in a bid to curb the influence of Roman Catholic leaders.

"They want to destroy the Catholic Church, and they haven't been able to do it," Luckert told Caracas-based Union Radio. The Vatican has issued no formal reaction.

Reformist Albornoz strongly denied that the government funds his church, challenging Luckert to present evidence. The new church takes no political line, he added, saying Catholic leaders have been the ones to take sides in Venezuelan politics by voicing opposition to Chavez.

The Reformist church shares certain values with the president's version of socialism, for example stressing the needs of the poor in sermons and with community service. It also describes itself as "Bolivarian" - referring to 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar, whom Chavez considers his own movement's spiritual father.

In contrast to Catholicism, members of the new church do not shun homosexuality. Divorce is allowed in cases of adulterous or abusive relationships and chastity vows for priests are optional.

Chavez has consistently sparred with Catholic leaders since taking office in 1999, accusing them of turning their backs on the poor while siding with an "oligarchy" bent on ousting him.