updated 10/28/2005 4:07:00 PM ET 2005-10-28T20:07:00

Hundreds of indigenous Venezuelans marched Friday to protest President Hugo Chavez’s threat to expel a group of U.S.-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 said the missionaries helped indigenous tribes during hard times when aid from government authorities was scarce or nonexistent.

‘Question of sovereignty’
“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 Sanford, Fla.-based organization of links to the CIA and gathering “strategic information” in the country’s Amazon rainforest.

Government officials and other critics of the evangelist group have since backed Chavez’s decision, accusing 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 said it hopes to resolve the matter. Supporters say the group has 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 of 26 million, saying “it’s a question of sovereignty.”

Guarulla, a government ally, told the state-run Bolivarian News Agency that past administrations largely ignored indigenous groups and their cultures, but left-leaning Chavez has embraced them.

“Venezuela had a debt with the indigenous cultures ... it was this government that first truly took them into account,” he said.

Leaders of seven indigenous groups submitted a statement to Gaurulla’s office opposing Chavez’s decision.

“We request justice and the right to decide our own future. ... We demand that we be consulted before any decision,” it said. “This is not a fight against the government but a sign of our disagreement with the decision by the president.”

The New Tribes Mission, which has about 160 missionaries in Venezuela, was founded in 1942, specializes in evangelism among indigenous groups and has 3,200 workers worldwide in 17 nations.

Tensions between church and state
The controversy has overshadowed Chavez’s efforts to grant collective property titles to indigenous communities. He made the threat two weeks ago while granting 10 land titles for more than 865,000 acres to indigenous communities in the southern Venezuelan state of Apure.

Chavez has said that defending the rights of Venezuelan’s approximately 300,000 indigenous people is a priority. He oversaw the adoption of a new constitution in 1999 that recognizes their collective ownership of ancestral lands and allows them to participate in demarcating territory.

But poverty remains acute among many Indian communities, and many protesters said the missionaries were the only people who have tangibly improved their lives.

Chavez’s action against the New Tribes missionaries has raised tensions between some church groups and Chavez’s government, which is closely allied with communist-led Cuba and frequently critical of the United States.

More than 200 Mormon missionaries have left Venezuela in recent weeks after difficulties renewing visas or obtaining new ones.

The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has had a presence in Venezuela since 1966, announced Wednesday that the last of its foreign missionaries would be pulling out of the country soon and be reassigned to other countries.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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