Benedict Tells Chavez To Stop Meddling in Church Matters

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The New York Sun

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI told President Chavez yesterday that he was very concerned about moves to limit the Catholic Church’s influence in Venezuela, including proposals to change anti-abortion rules, the Vatican said.

The Catholic Church has been one of the most critical voices against the leftist Venezuela president, who has in the past called the church leadership a “tumor.”

Mr. Chavez and the pope met in the Apostolic Palace for about 35 minutes yesterday, during which Benedict made an reference to abortion, asking that Venezuela’s public health programs respect life, according to a strongly worded statement from a Vatican spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls.

Catholic leaders last year lobbied against an initiative by some pro-Chavez lawmakers to loosen the near-complete ban on abortion and allow it for incest or rape victims.That measure was shelved but Catholic leaders say they are worried about another proposed loosening of abortion restrictions, suggested by some outside the government.

The pope also repeated a demand for the Vatican to have freedom in appointing bishops in Venezuela.

The Vatican has an unusual 1961 agreement with Venezuela under which the government must sign off on appointments of bishops within 30 days, an official of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, the Reverend Aldo Fonti, said.

Mr. Chavez responded yesterday by saying problems between the government and Catholic Church were “limited in time, space, and people.”

He played down any conflict over the nomination of bishops. “The Catholic Church has no reason to worry about its freedom to nominate bishops,” he said.

The leftist leader earlier declared that his government’s reform efforts were “very Christian,” and even one of his communist allies, Fidel Castro, shared some Christian principles.

“Our Bolivarian revolution is very Christian and I have a friend who isn’t Christian, but lately has said he is a Christian in the social aspect: his name is Fidel Castro,” Mr. Chavez said Wednesday evening after arriving in Italy.

“I talk to [Castro] a lot about Christ each time we see each other, and he told me recently, ‘Chavez, I’m Christian in the social sense,” Mr. Chavez said.

The pope also raised alarms about an education reform proposal being considered byVenezuela’s National Assembly, which would declare education to be of a secular nature.

And Benedict said he was concerned about a measure to remove “Catholic” from the name of the Santa Rosa Catholic University, as well as the need for Catholic media to be able to report independently in the country, Mr. Navarro-Valls said.

Church leaders have cautioned about what they call a sometimesthreatening climate faced by the Catholic press. The Venezuelan government insists it fully respects press freedom, despite recently approved laws that stiffen penalties for libel and increase regulation of broadcasting.

Mr. Navarro-Valls’s statement said Mr. Chavez assured the pope of his commitment “to overcome every tension in respecting the legitimate rights of all.”

During a 2 1/2-hour press conference that followed the audience, Mr. Chavez said most of his meeting with the pope focused on poverty and was “very positive.” He called it “the beginning of a new era in the relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and the Venezuelan government.”

The Venezuelan president has said he wants good relations with the church. He regularly quotes from the Bible and often says Christ was a socialist and a revolutionary.

More than 90% of Venezuela’s 26 million population is Roman Catholic, and church leaders and local priests wield tremendous influence over many of its citizens.

Mr. Chavez was headed next to Vienna,Austria,for a summit of Latin American and European leaders, then to Britain, Libya, and Algeria.

The New York Sun

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