Visiting Nicaraguan pastors fuel the debate over their government’s stance on human rights.

Just before Nicaragua’s elections, scheduled for early this month, ten evangelical pastors from that Central American country visited the United States. They came to offer American Christians a firsthand account of how Nicaraguan churches are coping in the midst of conflict between ruling Sandinistas and counterrevolutionaries (called “contras”). While they escaped temporarily from the turmoil at home, some of the pastors found themselves caught here in a crossfire of verbal skirmishing.

Critics of Nicaragua’s leftist government build their case on reports of human rights abuses, press censorship, and religious persecution. They say that the presence of Cuban advisers there is a smoking gun pointing directly to Soviet adventurism. However, others counter that the Sandinistas are nationalists, not Communists, and that their “mistakes” are being corrected. They say U.S. assistance to the contras undermines opportunities for peace and goads the Sandinistas to justify their excesses, anticipating a U.S. invasion.

It is a bewildering debate for American Christians. Roman Catholics in particular oppose U.S. military intervention. But they are uneasy about deteriorating relations between the church’s hierarchy and the Nicaraguan government in a nation that is 85 percent Catholic. William Lewers, director of the U.S. Catholic Conference’s office of international justice and peace, protests against both the U.S. and Nicaraguan governments.

Lewers said that U.S. support for the contras, including a Central Intelligence Agency manual on how to conduct guerrilla warfare, violates international law and flouts ethical constraints. At the same time, he chided the Sandinistas for expelling ten priests in July without due process. He called the expulsion a retaliatory move against Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, a leading Nicaraguan critic of the government.

Among Protestants, opinion is fractured not only over policy, but also with regard to the facts about life in Nicaragua. Visitors to Central America come back perplexed about what they have seen. In addition, a growing sense of ambivalence about the 1979 Sandinista revolution is evident in mass media reports. Government policies on religious freedom and church attitudes toward national politics are seen as crucial indicators of Sandinista intentions and reliable measures of how popular the revolution really is.

With that in mind, the visiting Nicaraguan pastors—splitting into teams of two—met last month with American Christians in 11 U.S. cities. They came from Nazarene, Assemblies of God, Baptist, Christian Pentecostal, and United Brethren of Christ churches. All of them belong to the Evangelical Committee for Aid and Development (CEPAD), Nicaragua’s largest nongovernmental relief agency. The organization was founded in 1972 after an earthquake devastated the capital city of Managua. It now encompasses 42 Protestant denominations, about 80 percent of the country’s non-Catholic minority.

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Most North American Christians who are acquainted with CEPAD say its members are authentic believers in Christ. Yet because of the group’s close cooperation with the Sandinistas on programs to promote literacy and relieve poverty, CEPAD is under close scrutiny by U.S. opponents of the Nicaraguan regime.

Evangelicals for Social Action (ESA), the organization that arranged the visiting pastors’ schedules, placed this ambivalence on full display at a meeting in Washington, D.C. Evangelicals from ten organizations, including staff members from the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) and the Sojourners community, came to the meeting to hear two of the Nicaraguans.

In the escalating war of words here, IRD and Sojourners occupy front lines on opposing sides, IRD has distributed a booklet documenting abuses of power in Nicaragua. The country is the victim of a revolution turned sour because its democratic origins were betrayed, IRD says. “If the Sandinistas saw a significant change in the position of U.S. churches, they’d change their policies,” said Kerry Ptacek, IRD research director.

In contrast, Sojourners has concluded that Nicaragua’s revolution “enjoys broad support among the majority of its people.” Opposition to the Sandinistas, Sojourners says, emanates from “a propaganda campaign” designed to deepen U.S. intervention in Central America. Sojourners organized a project that has sent more than 700 American Christians to the borders of Nicaragua and Honduras to protest peacefully against the contra war.

A question-and-answer session with the Nicaraguan pastors opened a first opportunity for Sojourners and IRD to air their differences face to face. At the meeting, Nicanor Mairena, a Nazarene pastor from southern Nicaragua, voiced no hint of criticism toward the ruling Sandinistas. He said churches in Nicaragua “have all the freedom of religion that you have here in the United States.”

He requested prayer for Nicaraguan Christians and asked American evangelicals to “speak for us so the U.S. government will no longer support—economically and militarily—the counterrevolution.” He said his nation is “surrounded by armed forces of the U.S.” spurring “out-and-out aggression against the people of Nicaragua to try to put an end to their revolutionary victories.”

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Mairena, who directs one of 12 regional CEPAD offices, said he is “aware of the total situation” of church life in his country. He displayed newspaper clippings about religious events held in public as proof that the press is not censored and church activities proceed unhindered. When the Sandinistas first came to power, Mairena said, CEPAD officials feared their group would be dissolved. Instead, he said, it has worked harmoniously with the government while maintaining its independence. “We are not a [political] party,” he said. “We are Christ-centered.… We have not been bought by anyone.”

However, several cracks appeared in the veneer of his portrayal of Nicaraguan church life. Mairena said he had never heard of Prudencio Baltodano, a Pentecostal minister who has said he was tortured and left to die by Sandinista forces. The Pentecostal church is one of CEPAD’s member denominations, and Baltodano’s case is filed with the Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights in Managua.

Ptacek questioned Mairena about CEPAD’s budget. Mairena said the group receives about 8 percent of its annual budget of $1 million from U.S. churches. However, when Ptacek pointed out that CEPAD received $400,000 from the National Council of Church’s Church World Service in 1981, Mairena backpedaled.

ESA director Bill Kallio said he believes the pastors are unabashed in their support of the Sandinistas out of pragmatic considerations. “They are responding by thinking about what their country used to be like. They want to avoid returning to the past at all costs, so they tend to overstate the positive.”

Kallio escorted the visiting pastors to the White House, Capitol Hill, and the U.S. State Department. In a meeting with J. Douglas Holladay, White House liaison to mainline and evangelical Protestants, Mairena again defended the Sandinistas.

“They were very selectively informed, and I felt they were surrogates of the government,” Holladay said. “What they said did not ring true.”

While Holladay met with the pastors, his boss was meeting with Arturo Cruz, a political opposition leader from Nicaragua who was prevented from participating in this month’s election. Holladay invited the Nicaraguan pastors to join Cruz to give administration officials a chance to hear both sides. The pastors refused, saying they were in the United States to represent the church, not the government of Nicaragua.

Said Kallio: “Regardless of doubts about the accuracy of [the Nicaraguan pastors’] information, one thing came through loud and clear: they are trying to be authentic and faithful Christians in their culture. Even if we can’t agree, we desperately need to be praying for them.”

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