Protest mars vigil for Venezuelan cardinal

Wednesday, July 9, 2003

CARACAS, Venezuela -- Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets against stone-throwing supporters of Venezuela's president trying to disrupt the wake of Roman Catholic Cardinal Ignacio Velasco.

The cardinal, an outspoken leader of the Venezuelan Church and critic of President Hugo Chavez, died early Monday at the age of 74.

Chavez's government declared the country in three days of mourning, ordering Venezuelan flags outside public buildings to be flown at half-staff.

As hundreds of mourners paid their last respects to the cardinal in the Caracas cathedral, groups of apparently pro-Chavez demonstrators gathered outside shouting slogans against Velasco and the church.

Police dispersed the protesters after a firecracker exploded inside the cathedral, said Ramon Muchacho, a spokesman for the Caracas mayor's office.

"We had to protect the cathedral from these anarchic groups," Muchacho said. "This was supposed to be a day of mourning."

Protesters hurled stones and fireworks at police. One officer was struck in the head with a glass bottle.

Police and National Guard troops responded with a blanket of tear gas and rubber bullets that sent pedestrians scattering and prompted downtown stores to close early.

The violence underscored Venezuela's bitter political conflict, which has pitted supporters of left-wing populist Chavez against traditional business and political elites.

Velasco, who died after battling a long illness, was labeled a "coup-plotter" by government supporters after he spoke out against Chavez on several occasions.

Shortly after his 2001 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 was also accused of supporting an April 2002 coup against Chavez, though he visited the president while he was in custody and later urged Venezuelans to heed Chavez's call for reconciliation.

Velasco was born Jan. 17, 1929, in the western town of Acarigua. He was ordained in 1955 at age 26 and spent years working with indigenous communities in Venezuela's Amazon jungle.

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