Evangelical leaders try to reconcile reports of thriving churches with accounts of repression.

Evangelical leaders from the United States and Nicaragua met over the summer in both countries, attempting to clarify conflicting reports about religious freedom under the rule of the Sandinistas. Confusion about Nicaragua has resulted from appeals to U.S. churches from both supporters and opponents of the Marxist government there.

The Reagan administration supports counterrevolutionaries, or “contras,” who are fighting to overthrow the Sandinistas. Administration officials—aided by Nicaraguan opposition leaders who live in the United States, as well as by church-related research organizations such as the Institute for Religion and Democracy—have asked the church to support Reagan’s position.

Mainline Protestant groups, including the National Council of Churches, oppose U.S. policy and say the Nicaraguans are capable of making their own political choices without outside interference. Evangelicals have found themselves caught in the middle. They have tried to reconcile reports of thriving churches, increased literacy, and other improvements with equally compelling accounts of repression, censorship, and manipulation of Christians by the Nicaraguan government.

A group of seven U.S. evangelicals, representing the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), visited Nicaragua earlier this year. Led by NAE executive director Billy A. Melvin, they met with leaders of an independent evangelical pastors’ fellowship known by its acronym CNPEN (The National Council of Evangelical Pastors). They also met with Gustavo Parajon, head of an evangelical relief and development agency called CEPAD (Evangelical Committee for Aid and Development), which works closely with the Sandinistas. In July, NAE hosted CNPEN’s leader, Felix Rosales, at meetings in Washington, D.C.; Wheaton, Illinois; and Los Angeles. Rosales, a former Baptist pastor, coordinates a team of six Nicaraguan evangelists called Voice of Salvation.

CNPEN has received little notice in the American press or from mainline churches, which have channeled support to Nicaragua through CEPAD. CEPAD coalesced after an earthquake devastated the capital city of Managua in 1972. It is a cooperative social service organization that involves most of Nicaragua’s Protestant denominations. In 1981, CEPAD formed CNPEN as a fellowship of pastors. The group conducts workshops and retreats for pastoral training. More than 600 Nicaraguan pastors participate in CNPEN, according to Rosales.

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Political Nonalignment

CNPEN has resisted entreaties from the Sandinistas to become politicized, and it is no longer closely associated with CEPAD. “Times in our country are giving us a tremendous challenge,” Rosales said. “We have pressures from the left and right. [Both sides] want pastors to be identified with political matters, but we have maintained our identity as the church of Jesus Christ because we want to win the whole country for Jesus Christ.”

CNPEN’s refusal to take sides has hampered its request for legal incorporation. Until it is incorporated, CNPEN technically is prevented from owning property or meeting in public buildings.

“As a pastoral council we don’t really exist in the eyes of the government,” Rosales said, “but here we are, and the government knows it. We’re not given to putting out reports condemning anyone. The politicians don’t understand this type of identity.

“We are praying and fasting continually—not praying that the government falls, but that God would bless the government so there can be progress and people can live in peace,” Rosales told U.S. church leaders.

The NAE’s Melvin described the church in Nicaragua as “hurting and suffering, primarily because of the economic situation that is commonplace in the country.” Shortages of basic supplies persist, and inflation approaches 300 percent.

The NAE representatives who accompanied Melvin to Nicaragua earlier this year included J. Philip Hogan, Guy Nees, and Norman Wetther, missions executives for the Assemblies of God, Church of the Nazarene, and the Conservative Baptist Home Mission Society, respectively, NAE’s president, Robert McIntyre, and two World Relief Corporation staff members, Tom Willey and Tom Hawk, also traveled with the group.

They were received enthusiastically by local congregations as they were whisked from one church to another for brief appearances on a Sunday morning. “The first church I went to was packed out,” Melvin said, “with 500 to 600 people and people at every window looking in.” He said he observed no direct evidence of religious persecution but was troubled by indications that liberation theology is firmly entrenched in circles where church and government interact.

Several of NAE’s 45 member denominations have churches in Nicaragua, totaling between 1,000 and 1,500 congregations. The Assemblies of God is the largest Protestant church there, with 679 churches and church branches in 1984. The number of Assemblies of God congregations has doubled since 1978, the year before the Sandinistas toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in a revolution.

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The church’s growth at the grassroots has been matched by increasing tension with the government. The interpreter for the NAE delegation, David Spencer, an Assemblies of God missionary in Panama, flew into Nicaragua before the NAE group arrived. Spencer was detained several days by airport officials and released only after Hogan, the Assemblies missions executive, saw him being held. Hogan asked CEPAD representatives who met the NAE group at the airport to request that Spencer be allowed to leave with the other Americans. CEPAD representatives regularly greet visiting churchmen at the airport and help them clear customs quickly.

The Assemblies of God continues to work with CEPAD, but the denomination’s superintendent in Nicaragua resigned his position as vice-president with the evangelical group. G. Edward Nelson, the Assemblies’ secretary of foreign missions relations, said the denomination brought home its full-time missionaries from Nicaragua in 1978. “We emphasize that our position always has been apolitical,” he said. “[Church members there] resist identifying with the Sandinistas but still obey the laws.”

Credibility Gap

There are indications that Sandinista popularity is eroding, due to severe economic hardship and an unpopular military draft that is draining Nicaraguan families of their young men. Sandinista officials blame their nation’s difficulties on U.S. intervention and have appealed through churches for an end to the harassment. They have attempted to generate alarm in their own country by announcing that the United States is planning an invasion.

Rosales said the Sandinistas warned of an invasion in early July. At about 3 A.M. on July 4, he said, Nicaraguan tanks surrounded Managua, and soldiers pounded on doors. But the government has cried wolf so often, he said, that few paid attention. He overheard two women joking about it in the marketplace the day before, saying they looked forward to selling their wares in U.S. dollars “after the invasion.”

A similar credibility gap appears to exist between the Sandinistas and Nicaraguan churches. The country’s predominantly Catholic population shows scant interest in the Sandinista-approved Catholic “people’s church,” which advocates a mix of Christianity and Marxism. It is distinct from the Catholic church most Nicaraguans adhere to, led by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in the New York Times Magazine that the people’s church teaches that the Christian’s first duty is a commitment to the revolution, and sin is equated with “unjust capitalist social structures.”

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The people’s church, according to Llosa, is an elitist entity that has little in common with the mass of churchgoers who “do not practice the reflective, intellectualized, critical religion that the people’s church espouses. On the contrary, theirs is a simple, intuitive, disciplined, and ritualized faith.”

The traditional Catholic hierarchy, led by Obando y Bravo, has stood firm against Sandinista attempts to dictate to the church. “The church’s frontal attack against Marxism,” Llosa says, “perhaps even more than the economic crisis or external pressures, … has been a moderating influence on the regime.”

Evangelicals in Nicaragua agree that all churches there have a critical role to play. Many believe their independence from the government will help hold it accountable to the people it purports to serve. “The government can’t give itself the luxury of turning evangelical pastors against it,” one observer said. As long as that tension between church and state is maintained, Nicaraguans of all faiths believe their nation will fend off any attempt at totalitarian rule.


Robert L. Constable, 77, retired executive vice-president and general manager of Moody Bible Institute, former director of Moody Press; July 6, in Dallas, of cancer.

Stanley S. Kresge, 85, former chairman of the Kresge Company and the K Mart Corporation, United Methodist layman, who gave $500 million in gifts to various charities and institutions around the world through the Kresge Foundation; June 30, of a heart attack.

J. D. Grey, 77, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, former president of the Louisiana Baptist Convention, and for 35 years pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans; July 26, in New Orleans, after a long illness.

James C. Sams, 74, president of the 3.5 million-member National Baptist Convention of America, for 17 years president of the Florida Progressive Baptist Convention, and a pastor for 32 years; July 20, in Jacksonville, Florida.

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