Church-state talks aimed at cooling tensions in Nicaragua

A meeting tomorrow between Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and the Roman Catholic Church leader, Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, is expected to take some of the heat out of a church-state crisis that has been at boiling point here since the government expelled a senior Catholic bishop in July. But neither Sandinista officials nor their opponents in the Roman Catholic Church predict that anything substantive will be achieved at the peace talks.

``We have had talks before, but sadly, the church has continued to suffer,'' laments the Rev. Uriel Reyes, Cardinal Obando y Bravo's spokesman. ``If both sides are really seeking what is just and good though, something positive will come out,'' he adds.

That is the question that hangs over Saturday's parley: How sincere is either side about making peace? Both government and church were pushed into the talks by outside forces, according to officials from the two sides.

President Ortega, who last met Obando y Bravo nearly 18 months ago, publicly suggested a renewed dialogue after a recent meeting with Jesse Jackson, the American black leader, in Chicago. Ortega appears to have been convinced by the Rev. Jackson, and by Cuban President Fidel Castro, that the expulsion of Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega had raised tension with the church to an unnecessary pitch. Bishop Vega was accused of aiding the ``contra'' rebels who are fighting Nicaragua's government.

Ortega and Obando y Bravo were both born in the same central Nicaraguan village. Cardinal Obando y Bravo is understood to have accepted arguments by the Vatican's new ambassador, Msgr. Paolo Giglio, that it is time to tone down the church's confrontation with the Sandinista authorities.

``From the moment he arrived at the airport'' in July, ``we saw that the Papal Nuncio had come with a plan -- to negotiate,'' says the Rev. Ricardo Bendana, chaplain of Managua's Catholic University.

Obando y Bravo and his team of eight bishops are likely to request the reopening of the church's ``Radio Cat'olica,'' closed by the government in January for failing to broadcast Ortega's New Year message to the nation.

They are also expected to demand the return of church printing presses seized nearly a year ago after being used to produce a magazine not submitted to obligatory censorship.

The cardinal will probably further raise a longstanding request that the government should allow the entry of more foreign priests to swell the insufficient numbers of Nicaraguan-born churchmen.

Church sources do not expect the cardinal to make more than a ``pro forma'' demand that Bishop Vega be allowed to return, however.

If Ortega is ready to bargain on any of these points, political analysts say, he will likely ask in return that the Catholic hierarchy tone down its accusations of Sandinista persecution of the church, and ease its opposition to compulsory military service. The bishops say they oppose the draft because it does not allow for conscientious objectors. The government sees the stance as antipatriotic and supportive of the United States-backed ``contra'' rebels.

Fr. Bendana argues that the Sandinistas may have decided that with an unprecedented economic crisis weakening their popular support, and their treatment of the church raising hackles at home and abroad, it is time to make concessions.

The government is less commital. It agreed to the talks, says a Sandinista official, only because ``it is better to sit down across the table from your enemy than not to know where he is sitting.''

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