Chávez Creates Divide Among Evangelicals

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By Krista J. Kapralos
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 18, 2007

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Every Sunday, Ana González wears one of her best suits to attend Las Acacias, the largest evangelical Christian church in Caracas.

And each week, four days later, she laces up combat boots and tucks her hair into an olive green military cap to report for duty with Venezuela's army reserves, a foot soldier in President Hugo Chávez's military.

"I believe in Jesus Christ because he was a revolutionary," said González, 47. "I follow Chávez because I believe in the things Chávez is doing. He is also a revolutionary."

González and her husband, Francisco Melo, 49, met at Las Acacias eight years ago. Now, while they attend church and volunteer in the reserves, doing everything from target practice to issuing government-subsidized vaccines, González says they are among a shrinking group at Las Acacias who consider themselves "Chavistas" -- followers of Chávez.

At a time when evangelical Christianity is growing in Venezuela, the ranks of González's church and others have fractured over politics. Church members say they are caught between admiration for a president who flaunts biblical references and a growing concern that he will muzzle those who don't preach his brand of politics.

"A lot of people have left Las Acacias because the pastor identifies with the opposition," González said. "Many Chavistas have said, 'We're not coming here anymore.' "

But González and her husband stayed, if only to reach more Christians for Chávez

"We have to pray for the opposition," she said.

Ahead of a Dec. 2 referendum on vast revisions to Venezuela's constitution, this country has become even more polarized politically. Opponents of the proposed changes, which would eliminate presidential term limits and promote the government's ability to seize private property, have marched through city streets in demonstrations that have turned violent.

At a recent pro-government march, Chávez threatened to raze "to the ground" eastern Caracas, widely considered an opposition stronghold.

In Chávez's fight to bring Venezuelans into the fold of his "socialist revolution," churches have become important battlegrounds. Many pastors here say they avoid talking politics, but admit that the issues riveting the nation don't stop at the church doors. The question has become not whether to follow Christ, but whether to also follow Chávez.

The president routinely invokes religion. Last year, he celebrated his reelection by reading a biblical passage describing the communal lifestyles of first-century Christians. He has also frequently mentioned that his revolution will create a "new man," an echo of a theme of the Apostle Paul's New Testament Epistles.


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