BOGOTA’, Colombia, Oct. 25 – Amid rising tensions in Venezuela between President Hugo Chávez and various religious orders, the Utah-based Mormon Church has withdrawn all 220 of its American missionaries from the country, a spokesman at the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City said Tuesday.
The church, known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said it had been having months of trouble renewing visas or getting new ones for American missionaries working in Venezuela. The first group of American missionaries began leaving Caracas last week for new assignments in Latin America, and the withdrawal was completed by Monday night, said Michael Purdy, the spokesman.
The development comes two weeks after Mr. Cha’vez ordered the expulsion of the Florida-based New Tribes Mission, an evangelical group that he accused of aiding the Bush administration in what he claims is a plan to invade Venezuela. “They are agents of imperial penetration,” he said in an Oct. 12 speech.
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Relations between American evangelicals and Mr. Chávez’s fiercely nationalist government have been severely strained since August, when Pat Robertson, the conservative televangelist, told viewers of his program, “The 700 Club,” that the Bush administration should assassinate the Venezuelan leader.
The president and the Roman Catholic Church, whose leaders in Venezuela have sided with opposition leaders, have also escalated their war of words in recent months.
In August, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara said the Chavez government was a dictatorship. Mr. Chavez shot back, calling the cardinal an “outlaw, bandit, immoral.” The Vatican’s new representative in Venezuela, Papal Nuncio Giacinto Berlocco, has tried to soothe both sides.
But political analysts say the outlook for church-state relations is not good in a country where the president, whose approval rating tops 70 percent after nearly seven years in office, is ever more powerful and intolerant of criticism.
“I think this is a guy who’s trying to consolidate power, and he’s doing so by cracking down on spaces that are still somewhat open, like the churches,” said Eduardo Gamarra, director of the Latin American studies at Florida International University in Miami.
The president’s clash with the New Tribes Mission, which has been operating in Venezuela for 59 years, has raised concerns about future crackdowns. Mr. Chavez accused the missionaries of gathering strategic information for the United States, while running illegal airstrips and exploiting the Indians.
New Tribes, made up of nearly 300 missionaries and their children, works with 12 Indian tribes in southern Venezuela, focusing on Bible translations and literacy training, not collecting information for the C.I.A., said Nita Zelenak, a spokeswoman for the church at its headquarters in Sanford, Fla. Speaking by phone, she said its missionaries remained in Venezuela awaiting a final expulsion order.
“Our goal has been to clarify what we really are doing in Venezuela, so that he understands that we are only there to help Venezuelan citizens,” Ms. Zelenak said of Mr. Cha’vez.