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Bishops defied pope over Chavez, cables show

Pope John Paul II, who was fast-tracked for sainthood earlier this year, ordered Venezuela's clergy to stay out of efforts to topple President Hugo Chavez nearly 10 years ago, but Venezuela's church hierarchy defied him, with the encouragement of the administration of then-President George W. Bush, secret documents show.

State Department cables that WikiLeaks obtained and shared with McClatchy Newspapers and other news organizations indicate that church officials at the Vatican briefed U.S. diplomats on the pope's concerns but acknowledged that the country's Catholic bishops were likely to ignore the orders.

Nearly a decade later, relations between Chavez and the church remain chilly, and the cables provide insight into how the antipathy became so deep: Catholic prelates not only were trying to unseat Chavez, but also were willing to defy directions from the pope to do so.

"The Holy See is concerned about the prospect of civil violence in Venezuela in the coming months, and the pope himself has urged the Venezuelan bishops to 'cool it' on political activism and instead to encourage dialogue," said a confidential cable that Jim Nicholson, who was then the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, sent Nov. 19, 2002, to the State Department.

The cable came months after an April 11 coup in which top military leaders captured Chavez and flew him out of Venezuela. Wealthy businessman Pedro Carmona declared himself president. In what became a major diplomatic controversy, the United States didn't denounce the coup, even though Chavez had been elected to the presidency. Spain and the Vatican also were silent.

In the document, Nicholson recounts meetings with the Holy See's director for Caribbean affairs, Giorgio Lingua. The Vatican diplomat confessed to fears that violence soon would come to Venezuela and said the pope had ordered bishops to seek dialogue with Chavez, who himself had escalated tensions by referring to the Catholic Church as a "cancer on Venezuelan society."

The pope's message, however, largely was ignored.

In a comment, the cable noted that "the continued activism of the Venezuelan clergy in the face of the pope's caution does not surprise us."

Cardinal Archbishop Antonio Ignacio Velasco was at Carmona's swearing-in ceremony in the presidential palace, Miraflores. Carmona was forced from office two days later, and Chavez returned to power.

For the Catholic Church, Velasco's effective blessing of the coup made hopes of a reconciliation with Chavez unlikely.

Almost a decade after the failed coup, Chavez remains a thorn in the side of not only the church but U.S. policymakers, cozying up to pariah states such as Iran and Syria.

"Chavez has taken some very strong views of the church. He's argued that the church has largely been part of the opposition," said Peter Hakim, the president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue, a research center on politics in the Americas.

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