Chavez, Venezuelan church clash over freedoms

Caracas, Venezuela - President Hugo Chavez and leaders of the Venezuelan Catholic Church are tangling like never before, angering parishioners who feel the president and his clerical detractors aren't following Jesus Christ's creed of brotherly love.

Over the past week, Chavez has said that Christ would whip church leaders for lying. Cardinal Jorge Urosa, speaking from Rome, countered he was right to warn the Vatican that Chavez is curbing freedoms.

Some parishioners are concerned over the tensions between Chavez and conservative priests, who are speaking out against what they see as the socialist leader's increasing authoritarianism. Venezuela is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. Polls consistently show the church, which wields significant influence, is among the nation's most respected institutions.

"I don't like the insults that Chavez hurled against the cardinal, but I don't like seeing the Church getting involved in politics either," said Amanda Ortiz, 47, after attending Sunday Mass at a church in downtown Caracas. "Both sides are losing respect for each other."

During one recent speech, Chavez accused Urosa of misleading the Vatican with warnings that Venezuela is drifting toward dictatorship. During another public address, he urged the Vatican to replace Urosa, while heaping praise on a government-friendly priest he thinks should be appointed cardinal.

"May God forgive him, because he knows that he's lying. The cardinal who accuses me of running roughshod over the constitution knows that he's lying," Chavez said. "If Christ were to physically appear, what would he do with them? I have no doubt that he'd whip them."

In a newspaper column published on Sunday, the president denied he's steering Venezuela toward a dictatorship.

"We're advancing toward the complete democratization that we've called 'Bolivarian socialism,' whose primary objective is to give power to the people," wrote Chavez, referring to his political movement named after 19th-century independence hero Simon Bolivar.

Chavez, who served as an altar boy growing up in Venezuela's sun-baked plains region, remains a Catholic and sometimes jokes that he could have become a priest himself. He also often declares that his government's policies are strikingly similar to values outlined in the Bible.

Returning Sunday from the Vatican, Urosa said he hopes to reduce tensions between the government and church. He rejected charges from Chavez backers that the church's hierarchy is siding with a coalition of opposition parties ahead of legislative elections in September.

"We are not members of any opposition coalition," he said.

Urosa said he would not respond to Chavez's latest remarks.

Urosa argues that Chavez aims to copy Cuba's communist model and has raised concerns the president is borrowing tactics from his close allies - Raul and Fidel Castro - to sideline adversaries and muffle dissent.

The cardinal cites the government's refusal this year to renew the licenses of dozens of radio stations, effectively removing them from the airwaves.

Urosa also notes the predominantly pro-Chavez National Assembly has approved legislation taking power away from elected officials sided with the opposition while another ally, the attorney general, has filed criminal charges against several prominent media executives and government foes.

Opposition leader Julio Borges defended Urosa on Sunday and backed the cardinal's accusations that Chavez is seeking to reproduce Cuba's economic and political model, but the politician said the president "tries to hide it with a lambskin to distract and fool the population."