Is Venezuela the new Cuba?

By July 14, 2011

Venezuela (MNN) — Venezuela has formed a major alliance and a significant trade relationship with Cuba since the election of President Hugo
Chavez in 1999.

Chavez has described Cuba's dictator, Fidel Castro, as his
mentor. As the warm relationship
continues to intensify, it's bringing along with it a growing sense of concern for
religious freedom.

Castro's attitude toward the church has been decidedly
unfriendly. However, according to Voice of the Martyrs Canada, over the last
year, the government shifted away from higher profile forms of oppression to
putting pressure on pastors and other Christian leaders.

The concern, says VOMC spokesman Greg Mussleman, is that because
of the Chavez admiration for Cuba, Venezuela may be adopting a similar mindset
and ideology. Mussleman spoke with
Colonel Nelson Castro (unrelated to Fidel Castro), a Venezuelan Church leader, about
his concerns. Castro's first comment
was, "The church in Venezuela in the past has been very active and has done a
lot of evangelical campaigns."

Then, says Mussleman, came agreement. "We don't see the more
demonstrative persecution–church buildings set on fire, or people thrown into
prison–but more subtle kinds of persecution that causes people to
compromise."

Many church leaders have gone
along with the radical socialist government or kept a low profile to avoid
problems, but it backfired. Mussleman goes on to
say that the current scenario is proof of that. "What you're seeing is a situation where
pastors have compromised, and Colonel Castro is saying that this kind of
persecution is intensifying for those who stand up and preach the Gospel."

Subtle persecution keeps governments under the radar of the
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Rather than a direct hit, it's a campaign of
discouragement. "Where a lot of the
pastors now are starting to stand up and speak the truth, they're running into
problems. Again, it's subtle,
where people are losing their jobs, their churches, or some buildings have been shut
down. They won't allow them to meet."

Mussleman notes that on the face of the issue, it looks like
there is freedom. "You can have
Christian radio stations in Venezuela IF you agree to some very strict
regulations. One of those regulations is that you cannot speak out in any way
against the government."

However, that regulation can put a preacher afoul of the
law. "Some of the teachings of Scripture, in our allegiance to Jesus Christ,
would be seen as an affront to the government. So if you're not close to the
government and going along with what they're saying, you won't be granted a
license to operate a radio station."

The same is true for those trying to keep their churches
above ground. However, says Mussleman, "If
you're not close to the government, or if you're in any way seen as outside of
their control, they won't grant a license or permits to build new structures or
renovate the  existing structures." As a result, many churches are going
underground.

That's good and bad news. Castro warns, "I firmly believe that there is
going to be a law passed that will modify the way churches gather, and there
will be a price to pay. I think that is what is ahead."

Mussleman responds, "Pray that the church in Venezuela will
mature. With persecution and the difficulty the church is facing, pray that the church
will be strong, the leaders will be strong, and they will be preparing their
people in what the Bible says about persecution and difficulty."

The time for compromise is over. Colonel Castro says, "Preaching the Gospel will always bring
consequences, but we have to continue to preach Christ as Jesus as our King, no
matter what that brings."

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