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Venezuelan envoy says Jews not targeted

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Venezuela’s U.S. ambassador denied that Jews are being targeted by the government of President Hugo Chavez and justified Venezuela’s growing friendship with Iran.

Bernardo Alvarez was speaking here Feb. 25 at a breakfast for the media, the day after the release of a 300-page report by the Organization of American States blasting the Chavez government for widespread human rights abuses.

"I have twice taken delegations of the World Jewish Congress to Venezuela, and we reaffirmed to them that Venezuela is against all kinds of discrimination,” he said. "In fact, Jewish people who had left for Israel are now coming back to Venezuela."

Over the past decade, the Jewish community has fallen from a high of about 20,000 members to the oft-cited figures of 13,000 to 10,000, according to local Jewish activists.

Tiferet Israel, the main synagogue in the capital city of Caracas, was vandalized in January 2009. Eight police officers were among those charged in connection with the attack.

Alvarez sharply criticized the OAS report, as well as an earlier one by the U.S. State Department that cited Venezuela’s political and economic ties with Iran, as well as Israeli allegations that Hezbollah cells operate on the offshore island of Isla Margarita.

"We have a large community of Syrians and Lebanese on Margarita, and those guys are very good merchants, but they don’t support terrorism," he said.

In response to a question from JTA, Alvarez defended the close personal ties that Chavez has cultivated with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad.

"Iran has been a partner of Venezuela for years," Alvarez said, adding later that "We have a good friendship with Ahmadenijad, as we did with Khatami," his predecessor, "and we will be ready to work with any other Iranian president who follows."

Alvarez denied persistent rumors that Venezuela is helping Iran circumvent sanctions on oil exports.

He also said Venezuela has no plans to restore full diplomatic relations with Israel..

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