CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - President Hugo Chavez calls Jesus a guiding light for his self-styled socialist revolution, but that has not spared some of Venezuela's Catholic leaders from being grouped with U.S. President George W. Bush among the leftist leader's most reviled opponents.
While Chavez called Bush the "devil" in a speech to the United Nations last year, he recently said a priest critical of his government was bound for hell.
Most Venezuelans are Roman Catholic and the church wields tremendous influence among parishioners, giving particular sting to the barbs exchanged between Chavez and conservative priests as he begins a drive to remake Venezuela into a socialist state.
Some Catholic leaders are worried the socialist transformation could infringe on freedoms, and in the past week Monsignor Roberto Luckert, one of Chavez's most outspoken critics, said he believes Venezuela is headed for communism.
Chavez lashed out at Luckert in a Jan. 10 speech, accusing him of telling lies and living an ungodly privileged life. He declared the priest is doomed to go to hell — to which Luckert responded: "It seems he's going to hell, too."
Luckert later told Venezuela's Union Radio that, while Chavez gives sermon-like speeches, his government is spending money lavishly. Luckert said since Chavez is urging him to live more humbly, "I invite him to take a dugout canoe (instead of the presidential jet) and go to Nicaragua."
The entirely pro-Chavez National Assembly is poised to grant the newly re-elected president sweeping powers in the coming week to pass laws by decree, a move Chavez says will permit profound changes in areas from the economy to defense. He says his brand of socialism will not copy Soviet or Cuban communism despite his friendship with Fidel Castro.
The likelihood of broad reforms, though, raises concerns among bishops in the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, who call for a style of socialism that upholds free speech, tolerates opposing views and respects religious education.
Chavez assures them they have nothing to fear.
"Christianity is essentially socialist, so no one — no Christian, no Catholic — should be alarmed," said Chavez, who was once an altar boy and peppers his speeches with Bible verses.
Chavez has said if he had not entered politics, he would have loved to have been a priest. He calls Jesus an exemplary revolutionary and often recalls the Bible passage that declares it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
Chavez snapped at church leaders earlier this month when they expressed concern about a decision not to renew the license of opposition-sided TV channel RCTV. He pointedly told top Vatican representative Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino: "The state respects the church. The church should respect the state."
Urosa and other bishops say they want a respectful dialogue that allows for disagreement.
Some priests also have been strongly supportive of Chavez. Monsignor Edgar Doria said he thinks Chavez shares Christian principles like social justice and equality, and that the church can be a key "ally" in social programs for the poor.
Relations with the church have been hostile before, and Chavez once called the church leadership a "tumor." In the past couple of years, relations have grown somewhat more cordial while both sides appeared to seek a rapprochement.
Now, Chavez says he hopes to avoid a return to the "times of confrontation."
Some Catholics also say they worry about a growing church-state conflict.
"I think the church shouldn't be involved in politics," said Juan Diaz, who visited Caracas' San Francisco Church to pray while passers-by paused to cross themselves at the doorway.
"There has to be respect," said churchgoer Cesar Milano. "I hope they reach an understanding for the good of us all."
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