Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez blasted the country's only cardinal, who used a major religious ceremony to accuse him of acting despotically and endangering one of South America's oldest democracies.
"Insults, hate, it was shameful for the Catholic Church," Chavez said on Sunday during his weekly television and radio program. "It was undoubtedly a provocation."
Chavez demanded that the country's Roman Catholic hierarchy formally distance itself from remarks made by Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara on Saturday before hundreds of thousands of people attending the procession honoring a Virgin known as the Divine Shepherdess.
Castillo, 83, told worshippers in the city of Barquisimeto, about 280km west of Caracas, that Chavez's administration "has lost its democratic course and presents the semblance of a dictatorship."
"Almost all the branches [of government] are in the hands of just one person," said Castillo, who has increasingly criticized the president's populist policies and close relations with communist-led Cuba.
Chavez and Catholic leaders have crossed swords in the past. The president has labeled the church "a tumor" in Venezuelan society and clerics have been critical of the "revolution" led by Chavez.
On Sunday, Chavez said the cardinal's remarks were part of a plot to destabilize Venezuela and urged the country's bishops to avoid a path that could "burn the country."
Castillo -- who has retired from administrative roles -- was not speaking on behalf of the Venezuelan Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference, the church's highest body of local representatives.
The president of the conference, Archbishop Ubaldo Santana, appeared to distance the bishops from Castillo's remarks on Sunday, telling Union Radio that Castillo didn't belong to the group and was "giving opinions just like any another citizen."
"What has surprised us, the other bishops as much as me, is that he would choose a setting that wasn't the most appropriate for making these statements," Santana added.
Santana himself has criticized some government policies in the past, but he also has offered to work with the Chavez administration to fight poverty and political intolerance.
Castillo's comments came on the same day Chavez told participants in a government program to benefit the homeless that he was willing to cooperate with the bishops' conference.
"We will work together like brothers," he said. "It doesn't matter if we criticize each other ... I don't want to fight with anybody."
More than two-thirds of Venezuela's 26 million people are Catholic.
The country is deeply divided over Chavez, who was first elected in 1998. Supporters applaud the president's social programs for the poor majority, while opponents fear he is leading the country toward Cuban-style communism.
Chavez has repeatedly denied that he represents a threat to democratic freedoms gained after the 1958 ousting of General Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela's last dictator.
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