Venezuela Catholic mission hit after Jewish attack

CARACAS Wed Feb 4, 2009 9:07pm EST

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Tear gas canisters were lobbed into the Vatican's diplomatic compound in Caracas on Wednesday, the head of the mission said, days after armed men vandalized a synagogue in the capital.

The Vatican's Nunciature had been the target of tear gas attacks in January blamed by some officials on hard-line supporters of socialist President Hugo Chavez who say the Roman Catholic Church meddles in the country's politics.

Venezuelan media said two canisters landed inside the compound and two fell outside.

"We totally reject these actions, they cannot be permitted," Giacinto Berloco, who heads the mission, said.

Chavez is campaigning before a referendum on February 15 that could help him extend his rule, and some extremist supporters have stepped up acts against perceived enemies of the president, including an anti-government television station.

Nobody claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack. A spokesman for a small group called La Piedrita had said it threw gas at the Nunciature in January, but the group told Reuters on Wednesday it was not involved in any recent incidents against religious institutions.

On Friday, armed men forced their way into a synagogue in Caracas, destroying religious objects and spray-painting walls.

The attackers, who also hit the administrative center of the Venezuelan Israelite Association, wrote racist slogans such as "Jews get out."

The incident sparked international outrage and complaints by the Jewish community of growing anti-Semitism in Venezuela.

Chavez, a fierce critic of Israel, who expelled Israel's ambassador in January in protest at the Gaza offensive, condemned the synagogue attack and blamed it on groups opposed to his government.

"We reject violence and aggression against human beings, we fight for peace and respect," Chavez, dressed in army uniform, said on Wednesday in reference to the recent anti-Jewish acts. He spoke during a military parade to commemorate a failed coup he led in 1992.

The government met with Jewish community leaders on Wednesday.

Chavez insists he is tolerant of all religions and cultures. But some of his supporters are openly anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish graffiti has increased in Caracas since the offensive in the Middle East.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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