Chavez Boots Missionary Group from Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has ordered an American missionary group known as New Tribes to leave the South American nation. The expulsion follows remarks by Christian conservative Pat Robertson, who recently charged Chavez with seeking atomic material from Iran and called for his assassination.

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Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has ordered an American missionary group known as New Tribes to leave the country. Chavez accused the evangelical group, which works with indigenous people, of spying and imperialist infiltration. The expulsion order follows Chavez's brief suspension of missionary permits in August. That was after televangelist Pat Robertson said the Venezuelan leader should be assassinated. From Caracas, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

In a celebration marking the resistance of the indigenous people, President Chavez said this week that the decision to order the American missionaries out is irrevocable. `Five hundred years of colonialism is enough,' he said, adding, `I don't care what the reaction is in the centers of imperial power.' Chavez's belligerence towards Washington has won him political support at home as a populist willing to confront the superpower to the north. But Alexander Luzardo, a former senator and professor of anthropology at the University of Central Venezuela in Caracas, says regardless of the president's motive, the decision to kick New Tribes out is correct.

Professor ALEXANDER LUZARDO (University of Central Venezuela): (Spanish spoken)

McCARTHY: `The New Tribes' mission interferes with the cultural identity of the indigenous people,' Luzardo says, `and expelling the group defends state sovereignty.'

But the mission denies harming anyone. In a statement published on its Web site yesterday, the Florida-based group said the goal of its 160 missionaries in Venezuela is, quote, "to serve indigenous people through religious teaching, humanitarian assistance, community development and literacy." The group also denounced Pat Robertson's anti-Chavez remarks, which have incensed public officials and public opinion here.

This is not the first time that the American missionary group has fallen under attack in Venezuela. According to a recent report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, the New Tribes mission first came to Venezuela in the 1940s, operating in remote areas usually beyond the reach of a central government. Since then, the group has been accused of covert operations, illegal mining and exploitation of the indigenous people. Chavez accused the mission, which also operates in Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia, of CIA affiliations. The group yesterday denied any connection with any government agency. The New Tribes mission has also called the long-running accusations against it `bogus' and notes that no missionary has ever been put in jail despite all the investigations. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Caracas.

BRAND: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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