.- Widespread anxiety exists among Catholic leaders in Venezuela who fear that President Hugo Chavez could try to confiscate churches, schools and other church property and try to âeliminateâ the work of the Catholic Church, a source close to the Venezuelan Bishops Conference has told Aid to the Church in Need.
The source, who asked not to be named, told the international Catholic pastoral charity that tensions have increased after President Chavezâs decision to confiscate leading financial institutions and businesses around Maracaibo Lake which are connected with the oil industry.
Six weeks ago in a densely populated area of the capital Caracas a district council leader announced plans to seize several church-run schools, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reports.
Government figures characterized the initiative as part of an effort to protect historic buildings of national importance. Church figures fear that it is the first step in a thoroughgoing confiscation program affecting church property nationwide.
âAs regards the future, no one knows, but he could confiscate churches, schools, and other ecclesiastical buildings,â ACNâs source said of President Chavez. âHe might try to eliminate the work of the Church â it used to receive yearly subsidies from the government, but these have been reduced over the last eight years. In particular this has had an effect on Church schools.â
Since Chavezâs election to the presidency in 1998 there has been growing tension between the Church and the government. The countryâs bishopsâ conference has been alarmed by President Chavezâs style of socialism, which the clergy see as opposed to the countryâs culture and values.
Recently the government took offense at a bishopsâ conference statement from July about increasing violence in Venezuela, where some reports suggest the number of deaths among young people is rising every week.
âThe ministers and government again see this as an attack against politicians without thinking that the bishops are giving a red light to these problems in the country,â ACNâs source reported.
âChavez depicts the church as an enemy of 21st century socialism whenever it is critical of the government, without seeing that the Catholic Church is just trying to make its voice heard when there is injustice.â
Opposition to the Church is growing. In the city of Los Teques, near Caracas, one priest had to endure loud speakers playing music outside his church to drown out his preaching.
Some priests have been threatened for preaching against Chavezâs proposed reforms.
ACNâs source said ordinary Catholics should respond to Chavez by offering not only critical analysis, but also answers from the social teaching of the Church.
According to ACN, President Chavez is reported to have backed a 15-year project to integrate Cuba, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Boliva and Ecuador so that they operate as a single political entity running on a socialist model.