CARACAS, Venezuela — President Hugo Chavez railed against Venezuela's Roman Catholic leaders on Tuesday for condemning a law that has weakened his political opponents.
Chavez took issue with the Venezuelan Bishops' Conference for accusing him of sidelining adversaries with a new law that let him take control of airports and seaports previously under the administration of opposition politicians.
"This group of bishops is shameless," Chavez told state television from China, where he is wrapping up a tour that also included visits to Japan, Iran and Qatar. "They side with all those who attack the government."
Quoting the Bible, Chavez added: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
The law passed last month by the predominantly pro-Chavez National Assembly reduces the authority of opposition governors and also reduces their government revenues by prohibiting them from collecting tariffs and tolls at transportation hubs.
Catholic bishops issued a statement Monday criticizing "the increasing power of the executive branch, which deteriorates the legal system (and) strips national, regional and municipal entities of their legitimate autonomy and puts the democratic system at risk of collapse."
The socialist president denied that he holds sway over the judicial system and lambasted the clergy for siding with "crooks." Opposition leader Manuel Rosales and another prominent Chavez critic, former Defense Minister Raul Baduel, argue that corruption accusations against them are part of a Chavez crackdown on dissidents.
Chavez has repeatedly clashed with church leaders since taking office in 1999, but tensions have grown in recent months.