Christians Concerned for Venezuela as Chavez Granted Sweeping Powers

|PIC1|Voice of the Martyrs, a Christian persecution watchdog, has expressed its concern for the future of religious freedom in Venezuela after the country's Congress granted President Hugo Chavez powers earlier in the week to rule by decree for 18 months.

Chavez's new powers come as he attempts to force through nationalisations key to the new era of "maximum revolution" in which he aims to transform 11 broadly defined areas, including the economy, energy and defence.

Voice of the Martyrs' Todd Nettleton said, "President Hugo Chavez is gaining almost dictatorial powers over that country. He will be allowed to stay in office as long as he wants and basically rule the country by his decree."

The future for Christians in the country looks uncertain and Nettleton says Chavez doesn't have a good track record, reports Mission Network News.

"Chavez is very fond of Fidel Castro. We know he's not a friend of the church in his country. So, you just look at the evidence and you look at the past and you look at who Hugo Chavez' friends are, it's got to make you nervous if you have Christian workers in Venezuela."

Voice of the Martyrs has never expanded its work into Venezuela. This could be about to change.

"It hasn't been a country where we say Christians are persecuted, what we would identify as a restricted nation. Now, obviously that could change. That's something we evaluate each year," Nettleton said.

While Nettleton stopped short of saying that religious freedom was getting worse there, he did say, "It's definitely not on the upswing. It'll be interesting to see if there are changes towards Venezuelan national Christians and the Venezuelan church itself now that Hugo Chavez has taken these powers."

Last year, Chavez threw the US-based missionary group New Tribes Mission out of the country. The group had been working with 12 different tribes over the last 60 years.

According to Nettleton, the best thing Christians can do right now is pray.

"Pray that Hugo Chavez will come into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," he said. "What an impact that could have, not only on that country, but on the world, if this man would say, 'I'm now a follower of Christ.' It would change the way he governs. It would change that country."