Archive for Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Leader of Catholics in Venezuela dies

July 8, 2003


— Cardinal Ignacio Velasco, who led Venezuela's Roman Catholic Church through a stormy relationship with President Hugo Chavez, has died. He was 74.

Velasco died early Monday in his Caracas home after battling a lengthy illness, said Monsignor Jose Luis Gonzalez, administrator of the Caracas archdiocese.

Hundreds of Venezuelans, including former President Luis Herrera Campins, paid their respects at the Caracas Cathedral, where Velasco's coffin was to remain through Wednesday. Pope John Paul II sent condolences.

Vice President Jose Vicente Rangel called Velasco's death "a loss we regret because of what it means for the great Venezuelan Catholic family."

Velasco's 2001 appointment as cardinal was "an honor for the Venezuelan people," Rangel added in a statement sent to The Associated Press.

Velasco often jumped into Venezuela's bitter debate over Chavez's leftist policies.

Shortly after appointment as cardinal, Velasco warned that Chavez risked losing the public's faith if he did not improve relations with the church in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Chavez once called the church a "tumor" and priests "devils under their cassocks."

Velasco visited Chavez while the president was in custody during a brief 2002 coup. After the coup, Velasco urged Venezuelans to heed Chavez's appeal for reconciliation, saying the president "promised me he would correct many things."

In November, unidentified assailants tossed a grenade at Velasco's Caracas home. No one was hurt. And in April, Velasco warned that Chavez was leading Venezuela toward communism and called upon God "to free" the country from that threat. Chavez angrily denied the charge.

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