CARACAS, Venezuela – U.S. missionaries accused by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez of espionage have been forced from their remote outposts among jungle tribes by a government order, the final pair leaving Thursday after years of evangelical work.
The New Tribes Mission flew those two out of the rain forest to regroup with other missionaries in the eastern city of Puerto Ordaz. There they will decide what to do next: leave the country or continue with a legal battle seeking to overturn the government's order to expel them from indigenous areas by Sunday.
Most of the group's missionaries are Americans.
Since late January, nearly 40 have pulled out and headed to the group's base in Puerto Ordaz ahead of the Sunday deadline, said Marco Brito, a spokesman for the missionaries.
"They're all shattered, some of them depressed," Brito said, noting one Canadian woman has been working for more than 40 years with the remote Yanomami tribe in the Amazon rain forest.
"But it's not a complete disaster. We'll see what happens. Many are waiting to see what the court decides," he added.
The Supreme Court is set to consider a request by the group to annul the expulsion order, though Britto said that it was unclear when the case could be heard and or how long it could take for a decision.
Chavez announced in November that New Tribes missionaries would be expelled from the country. But the actual Interior Ministry order printed later in the official gazette said only that the missionaries had to leave indigenous areas. It is not yet clear whether the government will now insist that the missionaries leave the country altogether.
Chavez has accused the Sanford, Fla.-based group of using its presence in remote, mineral-rich areas to spy for foreign mining and pharmaceutical interests and collect "strategic information" for the CIA.
The government has yet to provide evidence to back its claims, but the allegations revived long-held suspicions about the missionaries' activities in their isolated settlements.
The group denies the accusations and has offered to open its jungle missions to government inspectors to dispel suspicions.
Interior Minister Jesse Chacon has said the group operates in an area that contains uranium deposits — of interest to foreign countries for their nuclear potential. He has claimed the missionaries use sophisticated computers, satellite transmitters and other equipment unnecessary for evangelical work.
New Tribes is a Protestant evangelical organization that specializes in working among 3,000 indigenous groups in the world's most remote areas. It has been in Venezuela since 1946.
Chavez has frequently clashed with the Bush administration, accusing it of being behind attempts to undermine his government. Tensions have run particularly high since last week, when Venezuela barred a U.S. Embassy official from returning to the country, saying the naval attache had been involved in spying. Washington expelled a Venezuelan diplomat in response.
On Thursday, Chavez called President Bush a "madman" and accused the United States and Britain of planning to invade Iran, Venezuela's closest ally in the Middle East.