The sale of U.S. arms to Iran, and the subsequent funneling of profits to aid the contra rebels in Nicaragua, returned that Central American nation to the front pages of newspapers across the United States.

But then, Nicaragua has been capturing headlines since 1979, the year dictator Anastasio Somoza was toppled by the Sandinista revolution. Some observers predicted the Sandinistas’ Marxist orientation would lead the country into totalitarianism, similar to Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Others, citing the prominent involvement of Christians in the revolution, said the overthrow of Somoza was a true people’s movement. As a result, they said, the Sandinista leaders would respect human rights.

An Unclear Future

However, it is still unclear today where the revolution is headed. Of major concern to Christians outside Nicaragua is the way the Sandinistas have treated the church. While three Roman Catholic priests serve in the nine-member Sandinista national directorate, Nicaraguan Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo and Pope John Paul II both have been at odds with the revolutionary rulers. Nicaragua’s Catholic hierarchy has accused the government of trying to co-opt Christians to help consolidate the Sandinistas’ power. Indeed, a segment of Nicaragua’s Catholic church has aligned itself with the “popular church,” which is strongly pro-revolution.

Divisions exist as well within the Protestant community. The Evangelical Committee for Aid and Development (CEPAD), which includes representatives of 46 denominations, cooperates with the government in development work. CEPAD head Gustavo Parajon points to the growth of the church since the Sandinistas took power, saying Protestants now make up 15 percent of the population.

Leaders of the conservative National Council of Evangelical Pastors (CNPEN), which last year broke away from CEPAD, agree that Protestant churches are growing. But they nevertheless point to restrictions on church activities that did not exist under Somoza. “Ten years ago, there weren’t any restrictions of any kind on the church,” said CNPEN leader Felix Rosales. (The Sandinistas say any restrictions are state-of-emergency measures forced on them by the civil war being fought against U.S. backed contras.)

While many Nicaraguan Christians do not support the Sandinistas, pastors and other church leaders interviewed by CHRISTIANITY TODAY said their primary concern is not politics, but rather the need to evangelize their country and meet the needs of their people.

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The Catholic Hierarchy

Nicaragua’s Roman Catholic hierarchy has tangled with the government on a number of occasions. Last year, the Sandinistas expelled two Catholic leaders: Pablo Antonio Vega, vice-president of the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference, and Bismarck Carballo, former spokesman for Archbishop Obando. The government accused the clerics of advocating aid for the contras.

The government also closed down the Catholic church’s newspaper and radio station. The Sandinistas cited the radio station for refusing to broadcast a speech by President Daniel Ortega, and the newspaper for not complying with registration requirements.

Father Uriel Reyes, Archbishop Obando’s current spokesman, said that by closing down the Catholic radio station, the Sandinistas are preventing the church from teaching its people, who make up the vast majority of Nicaragua’s population. Reyes denied government charges that the Catholic hierarchy has sided with the contras. “The church holds that the only hope for peace is dialogue and reconciliation,” he said. “… All forms of aid … that lead to the destruction of families or to hatred or the destruction of Nicaraguans, are contemptible. Change in a man’s heart will achieve peace.”

Pastors Association

CNPEN, the conservative association representing some 800 pastors, also finds fault with its treatment at the hands of the Sandinistas. Because the group is not registered with the government, the Sandinistas do not recognize CNPEN as a legal organization, CNPEN leader Rosales said the organization has tried repeatedly to register, but the government has refused to cooperate.

“We are trying very hard to get an interview set up with President Daniel Ortega, because we want to clarify our position [with the government] as to who we are and what we’re doing,” Rosales said. “However, he still hasn’t granted us an interview.” He said interior minister Tomas Borge also has refused to meet with CNPEN representatives.

Gustavo Sevilla, director of CNPEN’S commission on evangelism, said conditions in general are worse now than before the revolution. “Seven years ago the church did not have to get any permission to hold public services,” he said. “Seven years ago there was no censorship. Seven years ago we did not have to send in a list of each of the members of our churches, including their names and addresses.”

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Rosales stressed that CNPEN’S purpose is spiritual, rather than political. “We are basically a group that is neither to the right nor to the left [politically],” he said. “… It is our conviction that the [need] here is the presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ, not the imposition of a particular political idea.” CNPEN’S plans for this year include helping pastors obtain adequate housing; organizing united evangelistic efforts, including youth evangelism; and conducting training seminars.

Local Ministries

Pastors and lay leaders interviewed by CHRISTIANITY TODAY in western Nicaragua said their churches are confronted by immense needs, both spiritual and material. Julio Guido, an Assemblies of God layman from Los Cocos, provides technical assistance to CEPAD’S construction projects in northwest Nicaragua. He also preaches on a radio program sponsored by his church.

To minister to its community, Guido’s 136-member church has formed committees to work with youth, to meet the needs of the sick, and to organize evangelistic efforts. The church recently prepared a group of 42 converts for church membership.

Guido said the only restriction his church has faced is a government requirement that his radio sermons not deal with politics. When the church was planning its series of radio messages, he said, it had to agree the programs would not be used for political purposes.

“We are limited to straightforward preaching of the Word of God,” Guido said. “We are not allowed to get involved in political propaganda. As a [lay] preacher, I have no problem with this, because my responsibility is to preach the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I am free to do that.”

Pastor Martinez, of the Apostolic Church of Faith in Christ in German Pomares, said the church’s primary ministry is “announcing the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He said churches in his area preach the gospel with “praise, preaching, and community outreach.… We often go house-to-house to preach, teach, or counsel. In the cities we use radio programs as well.”

“We try to take care of material needs too,” Martinez said. But he and other pastors agreed that economic hardships are so widespread that the churches are unable to alleviate the physical suffering.

Martinez said people often don’t have enough food or clothing. One pastor said his church needs musical instruments, and many churches lack adequate meeting facilities. Martinez’s congregation meets in a small shed next to a house. Some churches meet out in the open or under thatched roofs, a common sight in rural Nicaragua.

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In addition to the problem of poverty, the pastors said Nicaragua’s civil war imposes hardships on their ministries. “Many people have laid down their lives in Nicaragua for peace,” Martinez said. “We want to live in peace without any impediment to the preaching of the gospel. [Because of the civil war], it is dangerous to walk out at night. And this makes it more difficult [to minister].” The pastors said Christians both in Nicaragua and in North America need to work together for peace in their country.

Seeking Reconciliation

Norman Bent, pastor of the Managua Moravian Church, said one of Nicaragua’s greatest needs is reconciliation. He has been involved in reconciliation efforts, including talks between the government and the Miskito Indians of Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast region.

The Sandinistas’ harshest actions against Christians came in the early 1980s, when the government resettled thousands of Miskito Indians—many of them Moravians—from the border areas of the east coast region. When the government destroyed 65 Miskito villages, 65 Moravian churches were destroyed as well.

“In those days, being an Indian was equated with being counter-revolutionary,” Bent said. “… The Moravian church was also implicated.”

In response to the government actions against the Miskitos, Moravian Bishop John Wilson committed his church to the task of peacemaking. “We’ve been able to force the Sandinistas to recognize their errors,” Bent said. The government has offered amnesty to Miskitos who joined the contras, and the Sandinistas are rebuilding the 65 destroyed villages.

“The government has not only admitted having made mistakes, but it has asked forgiveness,” Bent said. “… There is still a substantial number of Miskitos fighting with the contras.… But many of them have abandoned the fighting, have accepted amnesty, and are now defending the east coast [against the contras].”

Hope For The Future

CEPAD leader Gustavo Parajon said more than 17,000 people have been killed and more than 250,000 have been displaced in Nicaragua’s civil war. Christians interviewed by CHRISTIANITY TODAY indicated a strong desire for peace, holding out hope for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.

“It is important that the United States and Nicaragua sit down and talk over whatever differences there are and find a peaceful solution to the problem,” said Bent. “The U.S. military approach to the problem is no answer. It is only in one’s dynamic participation in the ministry of reconciliation that we will be able to find a real solution to our problem.”

By Ron Lee in Nicaragua.

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