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 Martin Luther's Book of Common
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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. (Christopher Toothaker, AP)