A fledgling church that openly backs President Hugo Chavez is raising the ire of Venezuela’s Roman Catholic hierarchy.
Founders of the newly created Reformist Catholic Church of Venezuela, based in the western city of Ciudad Ojeda, say that supporting Mr Chavez’s socialist ideals goes hand-in-hand with Christian aims of helping the poor.
“We don’t side with any political banner, but we cannot fail to recognise and support the socialist achievements of this government,” Enrique Albornoz, a former Lutheran minister who helped start the church, said.
“We back the social programmes of this revolutionary government.”
A group of dissident Catholic priests, Lutherans, and Anglicans quietly formed the church several years ago, but its first three bishops were sworn in last weekend, Mr Albornoz said.
The church has five sanctuaries in Venezuela and about 2,000 parishioners - most of them in the oil-rich western state of Zulia, he said.
An iron-shuttered, concrete house of worship in a working-class neighbourhood of Ciudad Ojeda serves as headquarters for the movement, which borrows heavily from liberation theology and Martin Luther’s Book of Common Prayer.
Venezuelan Cardinal Jorge Urosa Sabino accused the reformists of attempting to divide the Catholic Church, which has consistently criticized Mr Chavez’s push toward socialism while retaining its status as one of the country’s most widely trusted institutions.
“The apparent political goal of this association distances it from the true expression of Christian faith,” Cardinal Urosa Savino said.
“Jesus Christ’s true church is spreading the word and the gift of Christ to the whole world, separately from political issues and party affiliation.”