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Missionaries Run Afoul of Venezuelan President

Chavez vows to expel a Florida-based group, alleging 'imperialist infiltrations' linked to the CIA. The group denies the claims.

October 16, 2005|John-Thor Dahlburg | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — During morning worship today at his church, the Rev. Henry Stewart will ask his congregation to seek God's blessing for a Florida-based group of missionaries now at the focus of an international controversy.

"I'll certainly be praying -- we'll all spend some time praying about this," said the pastor of NewSong Church of Waukesha, Wis. Stewart is not a member of the group he'll be praying for, but he has supported its mission work and has visited several of its overseas operations.

The missionaries, from New Tribes Mission, have been accused by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of sharing information with the CIA. Chavez said they would be expelled from the country.

"These are real imperialist infiltrations," the left-leaning Chavez, frequently at loggerheads with the Bush administration, said last week. The South American leader accused the missionaries of building luxurious camps amid poverty and of unauthorized use of aircraft.

The charges are "as farfetched as anything could be," said Stewart, who said he had visited at least eight missions run by the Sanford, Fla.-based organization, which for 63 years has specialized in Christian evangelization among indigenous populations in the remotest areas of South America, Asia and Africa.

"They only serve where they serve by the invitation of the particular local tribal people who are there, and the country," Stewart said. "They are not the stereotype of the outsider rip-off artist."

A CIA official, speaking Saturday on condition he not be identified by name, dismissed Chavez's accusations as "rubbish."

At New Tribes Mission headquarters, in a former resort hotel near the Central Florida tourist hub of Orlando, officials said they were puzzled by Chavez's charges and were seeking an opportunity to refute them with officials of the Venezuelan government.

"We have absolutely no connection to the CIA and never have," spokeswoman Nita Zelenak said. "Our goal is to help the people. We don't connect ourselves in any way with anything that could damage that opportunity."

New Tribes Mission has about 3,000 staff members working in 18 countries, Zelenak said. It has been active in Venezuela for 59 years and has about 160 people there, including Colombians, Canadians, Australians, Britons and Danes, she said.

"The primary focus there is the same as all the other countries where we are: to work with indigenous people groups," Zelenak said. "So our people are mostly located in remote urban settings throughout the country. Sometimes the setting is jungle, sometimes not."

One of the group's major activities is to translate the Bible into the indigenous languages, including Pume, Panare and Piaroa, used by native peoples of Venezuela. Often, since no written version of the languages exists, the missionaries must create it.

Sometimes, though, translation by itself isn't enough, Zelenak said. A verse such as "The Lord is my shepherd," from the 23rd Psalm, might require explanation for an indigenous group that has never seen a sheep.

According to local news reports, Chavez accused the missionaries of "being agents of imperialist penetration."

"They gather sensitive and strategic information and are exploiting the Indians," the Venezuelan leader was quoted as saying during a visit to indigenous communities in the plains of southern Venezuela.

Chavez said that "while indigenous people live in extremely difficult conditions, New Tribes have power plants, radio systems and airstrips well-maintained with tractors and mowers, where planes fly in from abroad without going through any kind of customs check."

"He's been given some false information we're hoping to clarify," Zelenak said. For example, she said, although the missionaries in Venezuela have two airplanes, they have no landing fields of their own.

Zelenak said the organization had been thrown into limbo because Venezuelan authorities hadn't told them what measures might be taken against them. "At this point, all we have is what was said in [Chavez's] speech," she said. "There's been no formal writing of any type. So we're doing our best to understand what his comments mean for us staying in Venezuela."

If the missionaries are expelled, the action could become a further irritant in U.S.-Venezuelan relations, which already are poor. Chavez has become a staunch friend of Cuba's Fidel Castro and a vocal critic of the United States, which he accuses of backing an abortive 2002 coup attempt against him.

In turn, Bush administration officials have accused Venezuela, the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States, of interfering in the internal affairs of other Latin American nations. During her confirmation hearings, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the country a "negative force" in the region.

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