Venezuela's evangelical churches are demanding that the government recognize their right to exist and guarantee their freedom of worship.

Problems between evangelicals and Nestor Luis Alvarez, Venezuelan minister of worship, flared after the government last year expelled foreign Unification Church activists. Several Latin American governments have expelled Unification missionaries under pressure from Catholic and Protestant groups (CT, Nov. 17, 1997, p. 76).

In the wake of the expulsions, congressional representative Godofredo Marin has accused Alvarez of blocking the legal recognition of 4,000 churches and religious groups, most of them evangelical. The legislator has joined some evangelical churches in accusing Alvarez of serving as "an arm of the Roman Catholic Church." Around 85 percent of Venezuelans claim to be Catholic.

Alvarez says there is no religious discrimination or persecution in the country. However, he says all church bodies must meet certain legal norms, including having a hierarchy and a legal representative.

"No state can allow informal groups of a religious nature to be present and act in the country who do not provide authorities with a legitimate interlocutor," the minister told El Universal. Alvarez says the government often has had difficulty identifying church representatives to contact on legal matters.

Alvarez, in a veiled reference to the Unification Church, also says the government has a duty to preserve the security of the state against outside groups that might threaten its stability.

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