Opponents of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez might have called foul after they convincingly lost a referendum calling for their leader to step down, but Chavez still faces a deeply divided nation and strong opposition from churches.

In Sunday's referendum Chavez garnered 58 per cent of the votes, but analysts have noted that the 42 per cent who voted to have him step down include many vocal and influential business leaders and technocrats, whose help the president will need to rekindle the economy. Church leaders will also be important in aiding national cohesiveness.

The most important political event in many decades found Evangelicals sharply divided about whether former paratrooper commander Chavez, who has been accused of copying Cuban President Fidel Castro, should remain in power.

Chavez' bitter squabble with the Roman Catholic hierarchy had been widely publicised in Venezuela and internationally, but lesser known was the deep political rift affecting Protestant and Evangelical churches.

"The big question we face today is whether we can defeat Chavez as Chileans trounced Augusto Pinochet in a referendum. And everything has been prepared to prevent this happening," Epifanio Marquez, a Presbyterian leader who represents the views of many middle-class Evangelicals, had said prior to the vote. Until recently, Marquez was executive secretary of the Latin American Alliance of Reformed and Presbyterian Churches (AIPRAL).

Marquez, told Ecumenical News International: "The Supreme Court, the National Electoral Council, the Parliament and the Attorney General are all on the side of the government and drafted a misleading question for the referendum, in which the key word 'revoke' has not been used, despite the fact that 3.4 million voted in favor of using the constitutional mechanism to revoke the president's mandate."

Government critics noted that Chavez had also been trying to increase the number of judges in the Supreme Court from 20 to 32 in order to have a clear majority in that judicial body which could, in the case of a disputed vote, tilt the balance in favor of the president.

Besides, "having forgotten the poor for more than four years, now the government has launched a series of 'missions' to buy consciousness and political support", Marquez asserted. "Despite this adverse scenario, I believe that the people of Venezuela shall overwhelmingly vote this August 15 and that, in spite of all the coercion and menace, the nefarious and thieving regime that almost destroyed our country will be toppled."

Still Marquez' forecast and wishes were not shared by a great number of Evangelical leaders, who came to rally support for Chavez at a coliseum in Caracas prior to the vote.

The event, called "One million prayers for peace", gathered representatives from some 2000 Evangelical churches, who prayed that Chavez might receive "divine protection" against being removed from office.

Chavez thanked them for the support and declared his "identification" and "respect" for the Evangelical movement, while affirming that he was a devoted "Roman, Apostolic and Catholic" Christian.

Analysts remain concerned that the outcome of the recall vote could still plunge the oil-wealthy nation into further political turmoil and violence.

"We are calling our churches to ponder, to dialogue, to respect differences and to accept the vote of the majority of the population within the framework of the Constitution," the Rev. Gamaliel Lugo, president of the Pentecostal Evangelical Union of Venezuela said.

"We need to regain the capacity for constructive criticism, away from any hate or violence," said Lugo. "And we have to wait patiently for the political instruments and processes established in the constitution, for they represent the truly democratic way."

Related Elsewhere:

More on the attempted recall of President Hugo Chavez is available from Yahoo's full coverage.

Other Christianity Today articles from South America include: Churches Bring Disaster Relief to Venezuela | Efforts opening doors to evangelism, church planting. (March 6, 2000)