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Chavez's threat to expel evangelists spurs protest

Indigenous groups back missionaries

PUERTO AYACUCHO, Venezuela -- Hundreds of indigenous Venezuelans marched yesterday to protest President Hugo Chavez's threat to expel a group of US-based evangelists, amid intensifying government scrutiny of foreign missionaries operating in the country.

The protesters -- including some who traveled for days by boat from their homes in the dense Amazon jungle -- showed their support for New Tribes Mission, which Chavez has accused of ''imperialist infiltration" and exploiting indigenous communities.

Luis Rodriguez, a Piapoco Indian, said the missionaries helped indigenous tribes during hard times when aid from government authorities was scarce or nonexistent.

''The government didn't arrive here to do anything important for us," said Rodriguez, 41, as he marched with fellow demonstrators, some of whom sang hymns.

Two weeks ago, Chavez ordered the New Tribes missionaries to leave the country, accusing the organization, based in Sanford, Fla., of links to the CIA and gathering ''strategic information" in the country's Amazon rain forest.

Government officials and other critics of the evangelist group have accused the missionaries of destroying indigenous culture and using their presence in remote, mineral-rich tracts of Venezuela to conduct reconnaissance work for foreign mining and pharmaceutical interests.

New Tribes has denied the accusations and is seeking a meeting with Chavez to try to resolve the matter, said a New Tribes spokesman, Ronald Van Peursem. He said the group believes the president has been misinformed about its work in the country.

Supporters say the missionaries have brought much-needed medical, educational, and other assistance to impoverished indigenous communities who have long been neglected by the authorities.

''There is no proof of the accusations," said Nereo Silva, a 45-year-old leader of the Piaroa tribe in southern Venezuela.

Liborio Guarulla, the governor of Amazonas state, defended Chavez's decision to expel New Tribes missionaries from the South American nation, saying ''it's a question of sovereignty."

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