Venezuela's Chavez slams Church leaders as immoral

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CARACAS, Oct 22 (Reuters) Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez slammed the nation's Roman Catholic Church leadership as ''morally unacceptable'' for criticizing his proposal to rewrite the constitution to scrap term limits.

Chavez's reform plan, which voters are expected to approve in a December referendum, also includes allowing security forces to detain citizens without charge during political ''emergencies'' or major natural disasters.

Church leaders on Friday issued a strongly worded statement accusing Chavez of seeking to concentrate power with an ''authoritarian'' proposal to overhaul the OPEC nation's constitution that he helped rewrite in 1999.

''They say the reform is morally unacceptable -- they are morally unacceptable,'' Chavez said in a government press release sent out last night. ''Those bishops that we have make us ashamed.'' Polls show Chavez will likely win the referendum because the proposal also includes popular moves such as shortening the workday and extending social security benefits to street vendors as part of a drive to build a socialist state.

The Church is one of the few respected, independent institutions in Venezuela and has repeatedly criticized his leftist policies and called on him to tone down his often aggressive rhetoric since he took power in 1999.

In response, Chavez, who remains popular due to his spending of oil income on the poor, portrays them as elitists who backed a failed coup against him in 2002.

Venezuelans are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic but generally practice their faith less than their counterparts in other Latin American countries such as Mexico or Brazil.

REUTERS SG BD1935

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