Chavez deadline for US preachers

By Greg Morsbach
BBC News, Caracas

The Venezuelan government has given a Christian missionary group from the US until Sunday to leave the country.

President Hugo Chavez has repeatedly called for the expulsion of the New Tribes Mission, saying they are American imperialists.

He has called them spies of the CIA and colonialists.

The New Tribes Mission says they have not received official notification of the deadline, and they are awaiting clarification.

Most of the 160 evangelical preachers and their families have already gone back to the US, after he asked them to leave last October.

Only 30 New Tribes missionaries are still in Venezuela.

For the past 60 years, the New Tribes Mission, which has its world headquarters in Florida, has been trying to convert indigenous groups in Venezuela to Christianity.

It is a non-denominational Christian society which says it is only funded by private individuals, not by the US government.

Indigenous groups
The missionaries live and work in the remotest areas of the country, including the Amazon rainforest.

Their goal is find tribes untouched by so-called "civilisation" in order to convert them to Christianity.

So far New Tribes representatives have been preaching to 12 different indigenous groups here in Venezuela.

The group says in return for agreeing to adopt the Christian faith, the indigenous people receive basic health care and literacy classes.

But a spokesman for New Tribes has told the BBC all the missionaries have left the tribal areas to comply with the Venezuelan government's demands.

However this may not be enough for Venezuela's Interior Ministry, which has called for the missionaries to leave Venezuela altogether.