Page last updated at 23:30 GMT, Saturday, 5 July 2008 00:30 UK

Pro-Chavez Catholics under fire

By James Ingham
BBC News, Caracas

Hugo Chavez - 3/7/2008
Mr Chavez has clashed with the Catholic Church in the past

Religious leaders in Venezuela have criticised a recently formed church that openly backs President Hugo Chavez's socialist politics.

The Reformed Catholic Church was set up by a group of Anglicans and Catholics who wanted to put more emphasis on helping the poor.

But the ruling body of the Catholic Church says its members are criminals who are trying to divide the Church.

The Church and the government have been in frequent conflict in Venezuela.

Catholicism is practised widely in Venezuela, but the new group's open support for President Chavez's socialist policies is deepening those divisions.

Feathers ruffled

The Reformed Catholic Church was set up by a group of priests from a mixed background.

It has a small following - several thousand people in the west the country.

But despite its size, its philosophy has ruffled a few feathers.

The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference, the ruling council of the Catholic Church, has described the founders as delinquents.

Its vice president, Archbishop Roberto Luckert, has accused the new organisation of taking government money and mixing politics with religion.

But Enrique Albornoz, who was appointed as the Reformed Church's first bishop last week, denies the allegations.

"We support the work the government is doing for the poor," he told the BBC, "but we don't take any political line."

The breakaway organisation is unusual in supporting Mr Chavez.

The Catholic Church has often clashed with the president, accusing him in the past of taking Venezuela down a path to dictatorship.

He in return has criticised the Church for being elitist and ignoring the country's poor.

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