Venezuela vice president outraged by U.S. televangelist who called for Chavez's assassination

Venezuela's vice president Jose Vicente Rangel accused American televangelist Pat Robertson Tuesday of committing a "criminal" act by calling for President Hugo Chavez's assassination on the air, and said the U.S. government's response would put its anti-terror policy to the test.

Rangel called the statements "terrorist" and said Venezuela was studying its legal options after Robertson said on his TV show Monday that Chavez should be killed.

"The ball is in the U.S. court, after this criminal statement by a citizen of that country," Rangel told reporters. "It's a huge hypocrisy to maintain this discourse against terrorism and at the same time, in the heart of that country there are entirely terrorist statements like those."

Rangel called Robertson "a man who seems to have quite a bit of influence in that country" and said sarcastically that his words were "very Christian."

Robertson's comments appear likely to further aggravate tensions between Washington and Caracas. Chavez has repeatedly claimed that American officials are plotting to oust or kill him - charges U.S. officials have denied.

Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition of America and a former presidential candidate, called Chavez a "terrific danger" to the United States on his TV show "The 700 Club" and said it would be easier to kill Chavez than invade Venezuela.

"You know, I don't know about this doctrine of assassination, but if he thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it," Robertson said. "It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war ... and I don't think any oil shipments will stop."

The United States is the top buyer of Venezuelan crude, but Chavez has made it clear he wants to decrease the country's dependence on the U.S. market by finding other buyers.

Robertson's comments "reveal that religious fundamentalism is one of the great problems facing humanity in these times," Rangel said.

Speaking about legal ramifications, the vice president said "this is a very delicate situation."

"There is a legal measure in the United States that condemns and punishes statements of this nature," the U.S. government said, referring generally to laws dealing with television broadcasts.

"The answer given by the U.S. government, its legal institutions, to a message of this type, by a supposed religious spokesman calling for the assassination of a head of state... puts to the test the U.S. government's anti-terrorist discourse," Rangel said.

Chavez has irritated U.S. officials with his leftist policies, his fiery rhetoric against American "imperialism" and his increasingly close ties to U.S. enemies such as Cuba and Iran. He says he is leading Venezuela toward socialism and, in a visit to Cuba this week, praised President Fidel Castro's system as a "revolutionary democracy."

Chavez has survived a brief 2002 coup, a devastating two-month strike that ended in early 2003 and recall referendum in 2004. The former army paratroop commander is up for re-election next year, and polls suggest he is the favorite, the AP reports.

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