Will Venezuela Seize Church Property?

The seizure of businesses in Venezuela has led to fears that the country’s radical government may be poised to carry out a mass confiscation of Church property — according to a lay Catholic expert.

Speaking to Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, a source close to the Bishops’ Conference of Venezuela said a number of policies put in place by President Hugo Chavez are causing widespread anxiety.

According to the well-placed source who asked not to be named, tension has increased following the president’s decision to confiscate leading financial institutions and businesses around the Maracaibo Lake connected with the oil industry. The source reported that six weeks ago, in a densely populated area of the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, a district council leader announced plans to seize several Church-run schools as well.

Government figures stated at the time that the initiative was part of a drive to protect historic buildings of national importance, but Church figures fear that it is the first step in a thorough-going confiscation program affecting Church property across the country.

The source said, “As regards the future, no one knows, but he could confiscate churches, schools, and other ecclesiastical buildings.” The source continued, saying, “He might try to eliminate the work of the Church – 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.”

President Chavez also announced a year ago plans to confiscate golf courses across the country. The source told ACN, “Golf is seen as an elite occupation by the president, which has led on to his decision to seize the land.”

Since Hugo Chavez’s election as president in 1998 there has been growing tension between the Church and the government. The Bishops’ Conference of Venezuela has been alarmed by President Chavez’ brand of socialism, which the clergy see as opposed to the country’s culture and values.

Recent reports state that President Chavez is behind a 15-year project to gradually integrate Cuba, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador so that they operate as a single political entity, running according to a socialist model.

At the same time, the government has taken offence at a Bishop’s Conference statement last July about the rise of violence in Venezuela. Some reports suggest that the number of deaths of young people is rising every week.

The source told ACN, “The 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.”

The source added: “Chavez 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.

However, opposition to the Church is growing and in the city of Los Teques, near Caracas, one parish priest has had to endure “loud speakers with music outside to drown out the preaching.”

Other priests have also been threatened for preaching against the reforms of Chavez.

The source went on to tell ACN that rather than passively accepting the state’s position people should be allowed to dialogue with it and criticize it when necessary.

“It is important that people think and analyze each situation where Hugo Chavez is implementing his brand of socialism. It is not conducive to the dignity of life,” the source said. “The normal Catholics should generate not only critical analysis, but offer answers from the social teaching of the Church.”

Aid to the Church in Need has noted with great concern the increasing threats to the Church in Venezuela since President Chavez took power.

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