CARACAS, Venezuela – Roman Catholic leaders expressed concern Wednesday about the militarization of Venezuelan society and what they called the persecution of government opponents under leftist President Hugo Chavez.
"Venezuela is seeing with astonishment and moral disapproval the promotion of a war-like environment and the militarization of society, including the creation of civilian militias," said Bishop Ovidio Perez, reading from a document outlining the concerns of the Venezuelan bishops' conference.
A former paratroop commander, Chavez constantly urges Venezuelans to prepare for a possible U.S. invasion and has armed civilian groups that are trained by military advisers for a guerrilla-style resistance war.
Critics argue the real goal of the neighborhood-based militias, which have drawn thousands of pro-Chavez volunteers, is to create the means to suppress internal dissent.
Chavez and Venezuela's Catholic Church have had a rocky relationship. The leftist leader has said he wants to have good relations with the church, but at one point called its leadership a "tumor." Church leaders, in turn, have been some of the most critical voices against Chavez, accusing him of accumulating too much power.
On Wednesday, the bishops' conference also condemned alleged "persecution and discrimination for reasons related to ideological discrepancies," including the imprisonment of opponents for "activities tied to their political positions."
Dozens of government critics have faced criminal charges related to a short-lived 2002 coup and a devastating strike in 2003 that failed to oust Chavez, among other activities.
In one of the more prominent cases, directors of the nonprofit group Sumate are facing trial on conspiracy charges stemming from the organization's use of $31,000 in funding from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy.
Sumate leaders organized signature drives that led to a referendum on Chavez's rule in 2004.
Nearly 150 people who signed petitions for the referendum have said they were fired from government jobs for endorsing the recall vote. Hundreds of others have complained of harassment for the same reason.
The complaints were registered after Luis Tascon, a pro-Chavez lawmaker, posted a list of those who signed the petitions on his Web site. Tascon has said he didn't intend for the list to become a tool for political discrimination.