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Amid increasing tensions between Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the U.S. government, the LDS Church has withdrawn all its North American missionaries from Venezuela, spokesman Dale Bills said Monday.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has had trouble getting or renewing visas for its U.S. missionaries, Bill said, so it has reassigned missionaries working in Venezuela to other Spanish-speaking missions in Latin America, the United States and Canada. Venezuelan LDS missionaries will remain in the country.
In just four hours Sunday, the Utah-based church removed an estimated 400 missionaries, some between ages 19 and 24 and others who are retired couples. The church has a temple in Caracas, and 144 congregations with more than 122,000 members on their rolls.
The withdrawal "makes me sad," said Abigail Jones, a Brigham Young University senior who returned from a Venezuelan mission in January. "But it doesn't surprise me. We've been expecting it because of the political situation."
But at least one Utah political scientist says the move is premature.
"I suspect maintaining a low profile would have been better, " said Edward Epstein, a Latin American scholar at the University of Utah. "If they played their cards right, the missionaries would probably be left alone. They need to demonstrate that their goals are purely theological, not political, that they are not acting at the behest of the U.S. government."
Hostility toward Americans has simmered in Venezuela ever since the charismatic Chavez came to power in 1998 with a popular mandate to fix the political problems that have plagued the oil-rich South American country for decades. The people saw in Chavez an attractive figure who promised reform and democracy. Some saw him as a moderate, while others feared the radical side that he consciously modeled after Fidel Castro.
In 2002, Chavez blamed the United States for backing a military coup bent on unseating him. The coup failed, but Chavez's paranoia against all things American was magnified.
The Venezuelan president would be suspicious of any religious body he considered closely allied with the U.S. government, which he contends is seeking to overthrow him.
Jones never felt any personal danger, she said, but during the 2004 election the missionaries were "locked inside our apartments for four days." At church, Mormons in the pew were urged not to talk about politics, since members lined up for and against Chavez.
Chavez has kicked out the U.S. military and its Drug Enforcement Agency personnel, said Kirk Hawkins, a Latin American expert, with a Venezuelan emphasis, at church-owned Brigham Young University.
In August, Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson said on his "700 Club" television show that the U.S. government should "take out" Chavez to stop his country from becoming "a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism." A few days later Robertson apologized for the method he proposed, but not the end goal of removing Chavez.
"Pat Robertson's comment would have concerned the leader of any government. It made it easy to believe that the Bush administration had designs against him," Hawkins said.
Within the past two weeks, Chavez expelled the Florida-based New Tribes Mission, accusing the evangelical Christian group of being CIA operatives attempting to infiltrate the country. Though the Evangelical Council of Venezuela defended New Tribes, the government is standing firm.
So it's not just the Mormons, Hawkins said. The Venezuelan parliament is working on legislation banning visas for all foreign missionaries.
Hawkins conducts research on literacy and grass-roots organizations in Venezuela and needs government cooperation to collect some of his data. He said he has found that increasingly difficult.
As recently as last summer, Hawkins and a team of BYU students ran into serious resistance, he said. "Officials didn't want to speak to us right away. They had to be convinced we were from a private university, with no government ties."
Jones said her mission president predicted months ago that North American missionaries would have to be removed. But he said he hoped the church would be better for it, that the Venezuelan missionaries and members would be made stronger by being forced to stand on their own.
And Epstein can see benefits, too.
"That would go part of the way towards placating or dealing with the government's fears," he said. "That might be, shall we say, an appropriate strategy."