Managua, Nicaragua — Several members of the Sandinista militia stand guard around a half-completed church in a poor Managua suburb. Shouldering ancient AK Russian rifles and wearing disheveled fatigues, they sit on neat piles of cement blocks.
''This church,'' says militia member Consepcion Peropino Ponse, ''has been taken over by the people and will now become a base for the Sandinista militia.''
The unfinished structure was taken over four weeks ago by one of the ''divine mobs of the revolution,'' as junta coordinator Daniel Ortega Saavedra calls the organized groups of Sandinista supporters.
It is just one of many churches that have been pulled into a tug of war between the Marxist-oriented Sandinistas and the Roman Catholic Church.
''Churches have been painted with Sandinista slogans, services have been disrupted by gangs of Sandinista thugs, and church members who do not intertwine their religious beliefs with Sandinista propaganda are persecuted,'' says Msgr. Bismark Carballo, spokesman for the Catholic archbishop's office in Managua.
When the Roman Catholic priest for the parish in the suburb arrived to celebrate mass on Oct. 30, he was informed he no longer had a church.
''I don't know what to do,'' says the priest who lives outside the suburb and asks to remain unidentified. ''I'm too scared to go into the neighborhood, and obviously I can't appeal to the government.''
Local representatives of the Sandinista Defense Committee and militia charge the priest with sowing division within the community.
''We had to get rid of the priest,'' says Peropino, ''because he was a reactionary and against the revolutionary process.''
Clerics who criticize the regime or fail to confine their theology within the ideological boundaries of the Sandinista party have come under sharp attack. Catholic Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo must submit his sermons broadcast by the church's radio station to Sandinista censors. Recently the archbishop was not permitted to broadcast his homily.
''The auxiliary bishop has had rocks thrown at him by members of the Sandinista youth organizations,'' says Mr. Carballo.
Catholic leaders here charge the Sandinistas with trying to split the church along ideological lines.
Sandinista attacks on the church differentiate between what they see as two theological factions.
''The center of the problem is not religion,'' says Commandante Victor Tiravo , a member of the nine-man Sandinista junta. ''The problem is with a sector of the church. We are not debating the existence or nonexist-ence of God.''
The ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has identifed itself with what it calls ''the popular church.'' This so-called popular church is made up of priests and congregants who identify with the Sandinista ideology and do not respond to the church hierarchy.
''What they call a popular church is neither popular nor a church,'' says Msgr. Pablo Antonio Vega, the head of the episcopal conference here. ''It is not a church because it does not teach the acceptance of a spiritual being above all man-made structures. It is not popular because it serves institutions of power, not those of the people.''
When the ''divine mob'' occupied the church in the poor suburb called Grenada , it was ostensibly to pass worship into the people's hands. Once the militia was posted outside and an FSLN party flag attached to the roof, the Sandinistas went beyond religious criticism. They handed the church over to militia commanders.
''The Roman Catholic bishops are currently bracing here for what they see as a major power struggle,'' Carballo says. ''The church recognizes the Machiavellian nature of the Sandinistas.
''It will be a difficult fight.''
The bishops, in a pastoral letter issued last month, opposed a new Nicaraguan draft law.
They charge that the Nicaraguan army, officially called the People's Sandinista Army, is not a national army but an army that serves a political party. They say the draft is a means of political indoctrination. Their letter says, ''No one has an obligation to serve a political party.''
Shortly after the letter, two Silesian priests, Luis Corral Priepo of Spain and Jose Maria Mario Pacheco of Costa Rica, were deported for organizing resistance to the draft.