Saturday, October 15, 2005

US Rejects Chauvez Missionary Spy Charges

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 By Patrick Markey

CARACAS, Venezuela, Oct 14 (Reuters) - The United States on Friday rejected charges by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez that members of a U.S. evangelist group were working as spies and urged authorities to start talks with the missionaries.

Chavez this week ordered the U.S.-based New Tribes Mission expelled from Venezuela after accusing its members of working with the CIA and engaging in "imperialist" infiltration in his latest barrage against the United States.

"I can categorically deny that," U.S. Ambassador to Caracas William Brownfield told reporters when asked about the spy charges. "I still hope we can have direct talks between the mission and the government to resolve their differences."

Chavez's announcement came just days after conservative U.S. preacher Pat Robertson attacked the left-wing Venezuelan leader for the second time this year by accusing him of funding Osama Bin Laden and seeking atomic material from Iran.

Venezuela brushed off his remarks as 'crazy" talk, but Robertson's call earlier this year for U.S. officials to assassinate Chavez illustrated the rift between many conservatives in the United States and the self-described socialist revolutionary.

Chavez often accuses the United States of plotting his death or downfall while Washington counters Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro are using Venezuela's oil wealth to finance anti-democratic groups in Latin America.

Officials have not specified when the New Tribes Mission would have to leave Venezuela and offer no proof for the allegations. Military authorities said on Friday they were still studying how to remove the missions.

Working in jungles and poor villages, the Florida-based New Tribes Mission is a Protestant evangelist group specializing in reaching indigenous people in remote regions worldwide. The group has been in Venezuela for 59 years.

"We are funded by churches and individuals who are interested in what we are doing, that is the sole source of our funding," New Tribes representative Nita Zelenak said. "We are not in any way connected with any government agencies."

New Tribes sends out missionaries to translate scriptures into indigenous languages and establish "tribal churches" in countries as diverse as Mongolia and Papua New Guinea, according to its Website.

Three of its missionaries were kidnapped from a remote village in Colombia by leftist rebels in 1993 and another was killed during a 2002 gun battle between Filipino soldiers and his rebel captors, who Washington linked to Al Qaeda.


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