Chavez kicks out U.S. evangelists for 'spying'


By Patrick Markey 2 hours, 40 minutes ago

CARACAS, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Wednesday ordered U.S. New Tribes evangelical missions working with indigenous groups to leave the country after accusing them of "imperialist infiltration" and spying.

Chavez, a former paratrooper who says his socialist revolution counters U.S. influence, briefly suspended foreign missionary permits in August after U.S. evangelist Pat Robertson called on Washington to assassinate the left-wing leader. Robertson later apologized.

"I have given the order, the New Tribes, the so-called New Tribes, are going to leave Venezuela. This is real imperialist penetration, it makes me ashamed," Chavez said, wearing a green military uniform and red army beret.

"It's real imperialist infiltration, the CIA, they are taking sensitive and strategic information, and besides they exploit our indigenous people," he said. "We don't want to abuse them, but simply give them a date to pack up and leave."

He did not say when the missions would have to leave Venezuela and offered no proof for his allegations.

Chavez, who is praised by supporters for championing the poor, was speaking at a ceremony in southwestern Apure State to hand over land titles, tractors and credits to help indigenous groups.

The Florida-based New Tribes Mission, a Christian evangelist group that trains and coordinates missions to preach in remote areas, has 160 assigned missionaries in Venezuela working with 12 indigenous groups, according to its Web site.

No one answered the U.S. telephone number on the site.

The announcement came just days after Robertson, a leader of the Christian conservatives who have backed U.S. President George W. Bush, again attacked Chavez, accusing him of funding Osama bin Laden and seeking atomic material from Iran.

Venezuela officials rejected the new accusations as "absurd."

Chavez has often charged Washington with plotting his downfall or murder. U.S. officials dismiss that as wild, populist rhetoric, but say the Venezuelan leader works with Cuban President Fidel Castro to erode regional democracy.

Frayed political ties and a barrage of angry rhetoric have not stopped Venezuela, the world's No. 5 oil exporter, from selling most of its petroleum to the United States.