A spokesperson for the Florida-based New Tribes Mission (NTM) is refuting charges leveled by Venezuela's president and vice president. The international missions association protests that none of its 160 missionaries who are working with indigenous tribes in Venezuela are operatives for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
Last week Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez ordered NTM to leave his country, accusing the organization's Bible translators of actually being U.S. spies guilty of "imperialist infiltration." Also, ASSIST News Service reports that the president of Venezuela also accused the Christian mission's workers of exploiting the natives while living in luxury and failing to abide by Venezuelan custom laws - charges NTM strongly denies.
Chavez declared his decision "irreversible" and remarked, according to Associated Press (AP), "We don't want the New Tribes here. Enough colonialism!" And although Vice President José Vicente Rangel says his government is not threatening the NTM workers, he nevertheless insists that the foreign missionaries should be expelled in a peaceful manner.
The official order dismissing the Christian mission workers comes after American evangelist and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson spoke out against Chavez on his 700 Club television program, publicly calling for the assassination of the Venezuelan leader. Robertson has since apologized for his remarks, but the apology was not swift enough to head off the government's leaders' reaction.
Rangel recently defended the decision to expel NTM from Venezuela, claiming some of its members were CIA personnel. However, NTM spokeswoman Nita Zelenak says his and Chavez's charges against the association are "absolutely false," as New Tribes has "no links with the CIA whatsoever."
The ministry calls the Venezuelan president's order that New Tribes leave the country "completely unexpected." NTM, which has been working in Venezuela for the past 59 years, currently does ministry among 12 different indigenous groups there. Among the 160 New Tribes missionaries serving in the country, some 30 of them are Venezuelans.
"We're a nondenominational, evangelical Protestant mission," Zelenak asserts, "and our focus there [in Venezuela] is to work in areas of literacy training, Bible translation, and church planting. We also do community development. We have no connection whatsoever with any political organizations."
The NTM spokeswoman also refutes Chavez's claim that NTM missionaries have disregarded the local custom laws. In an interview with the Christian Post, she stated that the missions association has always "submitted to whatever guidelines Venezuela had for us." And as for the charge that the missionaries live in luxury, as juxtaposed with the poverty of the Indian villages, she contends that this, too, is untrue.
Although NTM's Christian workers generally do not live in the same style of homes as the indigenous poor they serve, Zelenak says, they do live simply, dwelling in modest homes in order to maintain their health and carry out their work.
NTM would like a chance to talk with Chavez, the group's spokeswoman says. "We're hoping and wanting an opportunity to address his concerns and help him to better understand our organization and the work that we do," says Zelenak.
In a recent statement, NTM noted that it hopes to meet with Chavez soon. The group's officials also hope the Latin American president will reconsider his expulsion order and allow the NTM representatives "an opportunity to clarify misunderstandings and misinformation that exist regarding the work of New Tribes Mission in Venezuela. "
NTM's primary concern, the statement points out, is for the welfare of the indigenous people its missionaries serve in Venezuela and how those people would be adversely affected if New Tribes does leave the country. "In addition to religious matters, our missionaries also work in areas of humanitarian assistance, community development, and literacy," the communication states. "We have the highest regard and respect for the people, laws, and country of Venezuela ... [and] we deeply desire to be able to continue serving them."
To date, New Tribes Mission is still communicating with its missionaries and staff members in Venezuela to discuss what steps should be taken. The group has asked for prayer that its missionaries would know God's peace in the current situation and that NTM's leaders would have wisdom as they pursue further dialogue in the matter.
Meanwhile, some Venezuelan groups are voicing support for NTM and denouncing President Hugo Chavez's order to expel the missionaries. According to AP, Jose Kayupare of the Puinare tribe rejects Chavez's claim that New Tribes Mission is part of an "imperialist infiltration" that exploits native communities.
Kayupare told the press "the majority of indigenous people" in Venezuela's jungles "don't support" and "are not going to accept under any circumstances" Chavez's ordered expulsion. Kayupare says New Tribes has often helped Indian communities ravaged by malaria and other diseases, airlifting the sick to medical care after the government had abandoned them.
The Evangelical Council of Venezuela also issued a statement defending New Tribes Mission, AP reports. In that message, the Evangelical Council defended NTM and denied that the assertions that the U.S.-based mission group is in any way connected with the U.S. government or working for profit.
© 2005, Agape Press. Used with permission. All rights reserved.