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Tuesday, 29 January, 2002, 12:50 GMT
Venezuelan church rejects Chavez talks
Opponents of President Chavez march in Caracas
Mr Chavez is losing more support every week
Relations between Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez and the country's dominant Roman Catholic Church have taken a new plunge.

Cardinal Ignacio Velasco, rejected an invitation to talks with Mr Chavez at the presidential palace in Caracas on Tuesday.

Every day I turn another cheek - I have no cheeks left because every day there is a new insult

Cardinal Ignacio Velasco

The president had recently compared the church to a "tumour", saying it opposed his reforms without helping the country's poor. -

Mr Chavez now faces open opposition from the church in this predominantly Catholic country days after social unrest spilled into the first mass street demonstrations against his rule.

At the weekend, he launched a new attack on church leaders, accusing Cardinal Velasco and others of siding with his political opponents and Venezuela's former ruling class.

"They do not walk in the path of God, in the path of Christ," he said.

No more cheek-turning

The cardinal responded by saying it would be impossible to hold talks in the current climate:

"Discussion is not possible if we go in with our ears covered... with fire on our tongues," he said.

President Hugo Chavez surrounded by supporters in downtown Caracas
Mr Chavez considers himself a true Christian

He also hinted that the church would no longer tolerate the ex-paratrooper's constant barrage of abuse.

"Every day we turn another cheek. I have no cheeks left because every day there is a new insult," Cardinal Velasco said.

Mr Chavez is himself a practising Catholic and insists that his social reforms are Christian as they are aimed at helping the poor.

He further radicalised his government last week after protests against his "economic revolution" brought about tens of thousands of people onto the streets of the capital.

After Trade Minister Luis Miquilena, a leading moderate, deserted the cabinet, Mr Chavez promoted a controversial left-winger, Adina Bastidas, to the post.

In a new indication of his determination to pursue an independent foreign policy for his oil-rich state, Mr Chavez pledged support on Monday for Polisario rebels fighting Moroccan rule in Western Sahara.

He was speaking to Mohamed Abdelaziz, the Sahrawi rebels' president-in-waiting, in Caracas.

The BBC's Adam Easton
"The march has brought together opposition parties"
See also:

16 Dec 01 | Americas
Chavez warns Venezuela banks
11 Dec 01 | Americas
General strike paralyses Caracas
01 Dec 01 | Business
New law sparks Venezuela oil row
29 Mar 01 | Business
Venezuela outlaws oil strike
30 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Venezuela
31 Jul 01 | Americas
Timeline: Venezuela
24 Jan 02 | Americas
Rival marches in Venezuelan capital
25 Jan 02 | Americas
Chavez reshuffle defies protesters
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