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New Tribes Obeys Order to Leave Tribal Lands in Venezuela

by Deann Alford

Compass Direct News

Complying with President Hugo Chavez’s order to leave Venezuela ’s indigenous lands by today, the last two New Tribes Mission (NTM) workers left the area late last week.

They joined other NTM staff members at Puerto Ordaz, even as Venezuela ’s courts considered New Tribes’ appeal of the expulsion order, which may take months, sources report.

Chavez’ edict, published in the Official Gazette last November 14, expelled NTM from indigenous lands – not from Venezuela .

“We do not know if the court or the Supreme Court will rule and say they’ll have to leave the country completely,” said Samuel Olson, a prominent Caracas pastor and head of the Evangelical Council of Venezuela.

Much remains unanswered, Olson said; Chavez’ government hasn’t informed the evangelical council whether it will block all future missionary visas. Meanwhile, missions that utilize special workers are in limbo. “They are treading water to see what’s going to happen,” Olson said.

While he said Venezuela ’s church could go on without missionaries, they would be helpful in specialized situations such as in seminaries.

The tiny churches among Venezuela ’s indigenous peoples, however, will be immediately affected, with indigenous leaders forced to step up quickly. Leadership in some areas is underdeveloped, though missionaries have trained indigenous pastors and lay people in the almost 60 years that NTM ministered to Venezuelan people groups. Some tribal persons have become trained professionals, Olson said, and many are capable leaders.

“I think in the long run they’ll get their own act together and continue the work,” Olson said. “What we need to pray about is for these people who will take the leadership of their own people. They have to run their own ship.”

‘Imperialist Infiltration’

The missionaries’ departure is the latest in a chain of events involving the church-planting and Bible-translating mission agency. The events unfolded after U.S. evangelical broadcaster Pat Robertson said on his August 22 television broadcast of The 700 Club that the U.S. government should assassinate Chavez to protect U.S. oil interests, and because Chavez “has destroyed the Venezuelan economy, and he’s going to make that a launching pad for communist infiltration and Muslim extremism all over the continent.”

Although Robertson later apologized, Chavez’ government ceased granting missionary visas. Venezuela ’s religious affairs chief told Reuters that the government had already been working on the move, “but these declarations have made us speed things up.”

At a nationally televised October 12 Columbus Day gathering in an indigenous zone, Chavez said he would expel NTM from Venezuela , claiming the ministry is linked to Robertson – it is not – and that NTM is a “true imperialist infiltration” and an expression of “colonialism.” He also accused NTM of links to the CIA, spying on Venezuela , and exploiting indigenous people.

Later, the country’s vice president claimed to have intelligence reports that some NTM workers were CIA spies. New Tribes dismissed all the accusations as absurd.

Soldiers and Anthropologists

As the missionaries pulled out of tribal lands, the government sent in the military. But absent now are the missionaries who spoke both Spanish and the tribal languages.

“They [the military] are there, but they don’t know how to talk to those people, which the missionaries did.” Olson said. “It’s very odd situation.”

Presumably, he added, now educators and anthropologists “will go in to take the place of the missionaries.”

Missiologists and mission anthropologists have noted that false myths of CIA-missionary collusion have persisted for decades in Latin America , especially among pioneering evangelical groups such as the Summer Institute of Linguistics and Wycliffe Bible Translators. Many, if not most, mission agencies forbid their workers from cooperation with governments seeking information.

Nita Zelenak, NTM’s spokesperson, said that the mission’s offices and air fleet were based in the major city of Puerto Ordaz . NTM’s airplanes ferried supplies to the remote workers and carried out both sick missionaries and indigenous people needing advanced medical help. Some NTM workers had lived and ministered for four decades among remote tribal peoples in Venezuela ’s rain forest, such as the Yanomami, the Yuana and the Maquiritare.

Much remains unknown about NTM’s permission to continue ministering in Venezuela . Zelenak said the mission hasn’t heard whether restrictions will be in place for visiting the tribal zones, or whether all access to these areas will be off limits even for Venezuelan missionaries, whatever their affiliation.

Nor do the missionaries know what will become of their homes. “We aren’t sure how many of the NTM missionaries will leave [ Venezuela ] altogether,” she said.

Since 1946, NTM has served 12 of Venezuela ’s indigenous peoples through translation, literacy, church planting, humanitarian aid, and community development projects, mostly in Amazonas state bordering Colombia , but also in the states of Delta Amacuro and Bolivar. Nine of the indigenous groups have established churches.

NTM has completed five Bible translations; four others are in progress. Thirty of the 160 NTM missionaries in the country are Venezuelan nationals. Others are Danish, Colombian, Canadian, Australian and British, but most are from the United States .

Since the early 1990s, several kidnapped NTM missionaries have made international headlines. Abu Sayyaf fundamentalist Islamic guerrillas linked to Al Qaeda held Martin and Gracia Burnham for more than a year in the Philippines , where Martin piloted NTM aircraft, bringing supplies to remote missionaries. Martin died in a botched Philippine army rescue attempt June 7, 2002, in which his wife was injured but freed.

In 1993, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas kidnapped NTM’s Dave Mankins, Rick Tenenoff and Mark Rich in Panama . NTM concluded in 2001 that the three had been killed in captivity in 1996. Worldwide, 3,200 NTM workers minister to indigenous peoples in Latin America, West Africa, and Southeast Asia .