Chavez went on to condemn Monsignor Baltazar Porras - his leading critic in the Catholic Church - as "unworthy" after the cleric blamed him for high unemployment, crime and poverty.

The populist president's outburst on Porras, the Archbishop of Merida and spokesman for Venezuela's Roman Catholic bishops, was made to a group of foreign correspondents.

Chavez described Porras, who was travelling abroad, as "unworthy of the Catholic Church".

"If Jesus were here, he'd be a revolutionary, he'd wear a red beret"

Hugo Chavez, Venezuelan president

In defiant mode he continued: "He shouldn't be a bishop, he shouldn't even be a second-rank corporal, not even a recruit in the Church.

Red beret

Chavez, also a Catholic and an admirer of Pope John Paul, went on to praise Jesus Christ, saying: "If Jesus were here, he'd be a revolutionary, he'd wear a red beret.

''He'd probably say 'Chavez, what are you doing? You should get tougher'."

The larger-than-life president often wears a red beret which he regards as a symbol of his revolutionary convictions - a practice imitated by his supporters.

However leading bishops have condemned Chavez's revolutionary rhetoric as a threat to religious values although he says they back opposition efforts to overthrow him and neglect God's teaching to help the poor.