Father Hernan Astudillo of Toronto’s Parish of San Lorenzo says he’s become a target of threats by someone opposed to the Venezuelan government.

By: Nicholas Keung Immigration reporter, Published on Fri Mar 21 2014

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As Venezuela’s political crisis deepens, bitter divisions in the South American nation have spilled into Toronto, with a popular local priest receiving threats.

Father Hernan Astudillo of the Parish of San Lorenzo and Radio Voces Latinas, a radio station he founded in 2003, says he received threats by fax, email and phone last week after the church commemorated the anniversary of the death of controversial Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.

That followed a silent protest by a man who attended a Sunday mass for Chavez on March 9 at the church near Dufferin St. and Lawrence Ave.

Toronto police are investigating the complaint, but no one has been charged.

“It’s okay to disagree and have heated debates, but you can’t intimidate and silence others with death threats,” said Pablo Vivanco, a member of the church, whose family came from Chile.

“Our members come from Latin America and have suffered too much violence and political destabilization. This is not something we expected in Canada.”

In one email to Radio Voces Latinas, a group self-identified as Comunista Contra (Anti Communism) criticized the station for polarizing Toronto’s Latin American community with its “leftist” agenda and views.

“Why do you not just get the f— out of here, and stop creating hate to destabilize the peace that us, Latinos, have here?” said the email written in Spanish. “What you are doing will get you what you deserve up you’re a– so to keep you in line.”

A day later, on March 12, a group called Verdad de Dios (Truth of God) sent a fax in English to the church that addressed Astudillo personally.

“You have used the church as a vehicle of communist propaganda, which is contrary to the presets of any Christian church. You have committed fraud in your caravan of hope scam,” it said. “You are finished.”

Venezuela has been in chaos since early February as people took to the streets in protest of the government of President Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor, who has been criticized for a heavy-handed suppression of dissent. Many Venezuelan citizens say they’re sick and tired of shortages of consumer goods, high crime rates and soaring inflation.

Astudillo, an Ecuadorian, said he is not a Chavez sympathizer but did feel the Venezuelan leader had done a lot to improve the lives of the country’s poor by reducing income inequality, poverty and illiteracy.

“It is important to have leaders who care about the most poor and excluded people in our society,” said Astudillo. “All politicians have the obligation to provide and take care of the poor. Chavez had done that.”

Sofia Ramirez, an active member of the city’s Latino community, said people are upset with the threats against Astudillo, who is deeply respected for all the work he has done for the marginalized people in Toronto.

“What has seemed to be a faraway struggle in Venezuela has manifested itself violently here in Toronto,” said Ramirez, a Chilean, who also admires Chavez’s efforts to invest in social programs, healthcare and free education. “We can’t allow people to impede on our rights of free speech.”