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With Chavez still sick, supporters turn to religion

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

A priest sang the name of deities, drummers provided the beat and 150 people dressed in white danced in a room that became hotter with every incantation -- all for the health of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Another day, another prayer for Chavez, whose cancer relapse has pained his fervent followers, many of whom have attended ceremonies in Catholic churches, the Caracas mosque and now even a Yoruba ritual of African origin held in a sweltering concrete space.

"This man sacrificed his life and health for the Venezuelan people. Now we the people, from any faith, have the duty to pray for him to return to health," Gonzalo Baez, president of the Yoruba Society of Venezuela, told AFP.

The socialist leader himself has turned to religion, invoking God many times since he was first diagnosed with cancer in June 2011, though the devout Christian has had tense relations with the country's Catholic leadership.

When he announced he had returned home on February 18 after surgery and two months of treatment in Cuba, he wrote that he was "clinging to Christ and trusting my doctors and nurses."

His vice president and political heir, Nicolas Maduro, said during Friday prayers at the Caracas Islamic Center in December that there was a "spiritual revolution" sweeping the nation to help Chavez recover.

Last week, some 300 people attended an indigenous ritual in downtown Caracas, singing, praying and lighting candles. Guatemala's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who was there, said Chavez received "cosmic energy" from the ceremony.

But all this religious fervor is seen by some analysts as another political tactic by the government to wrap Chavez in a Messiah-like aura.

Officials have urged people to pray for him and ministers attended a special Mass in the presidential palace after he suffered complications in late December.

"The government is trying to sacralize Chavez's illness and develop a new religion around his figure," said Alberto Barrera, author of the biography "Hugo Chavez Without Uniform."

"In very little time they have converted him into a new father of the fatherland. There is a whole official industry dedicated to consecrating him as the new God of Venezuelan history," he said.

Chavez's has been out of sight since he returned from Cuba, but his image is everywhere in Caracas.

Posters of the president were put up on street lamps with the phrase "Rain of life flows from your hands. We love you!" Outside his military hospital, the government hung banners with the words "Chavez lives and smiles."

But authorities have given mixed reports about Chavez's health, fueling speculation about his condition.

Last Thursday, the communications minister said Chavez was still suffering from a respiratory infection. The next day, Maduro said he held a five-hour meeting with aides, giving orders in writing since his speech was hampered by a breathing tube.

Baez, a Babalawo, or Yoruba high priest, said government officials had called him after Chavez announced his cancer relapse on December 8 to "seek the improvement of the president's health through our deities."

At a ritual on Monday, adherents thanked their god Orula for predicting that Chavez would come back from Cuba and proceeded to pray for his full recovery.

In a room borrowed from a youth sports center under a downtown bridge, they hung a poster of a smiling president next to a shrine for Orula with green and yellow drapes and a fruit offering.

One by one, dancers approached the three drummers, laid on their stomachs and then kissed the drums. Later, as night fell, they poured wine on the floor, wet a finger and dabbed some on the head and back of the neck.

"This is to give strength to the president," said Susana Escobar, 40, who took the afternoon off work to attend the ceremony.

Luis Guillen, 25, an accounting student who danced and sang, said he wanted to be able to see and hear from Chavez again.

"I can't imagine him passing at any time," he said. "My mind is staying positive."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130226/chavez-still-sick-supporters-turn-religion