Feuding Sandinistas and church try to use Pope's visit to suit own ends

The Rev. Angel Arnaiz lives on an agricultural cooperative with 14 other Christians in Nicaragua's northern Chinendega Province. Besides ministering to farmworkers, the energetic Dominican priest tends cotton fields and cattle, teaches in the government's literacy program, works in agrarian reform projects, and hunts down community development funds.

Fr. Arnaiz says his mission is to ''lift people out of poverty so they can lead dignified lives.'' He preaches the goodness of God - as well as the perceived evils of capitalism.

It is priests like Arnaiz whom Pope John Paul II appealed to last June when he wrote, ''It is not through a political role but through a priestly ministry that people want them (priests) near.''

The Pope's visit to Nicaragua Friday underscores the deteriorating relations between Nicaragua's Roman Catholic Church and the nation's Sandinista government. It also forces clashing liberal and conservative sectors of the church to come work together at least during the papal visit.

Concern about what the Pope will say to Nicaraguans reflects divisions in the country, which is 80 percent Catholic and deeply religious.

The Rev. Bismark Carballo, spokesman for the Managua Archdiocese, hopes the Pope will encourage revolutionary church members to return to the fold.

''Like in Poland, we hope he will say something to orient us,'' Fr. Carballo says. ''He will look for unity, but through the archbishop, the rock of the church.'' But Carballo adds that Pope John Paul II ''is characterized by saying things that put him in hot water.''

Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto Brockman, one of five Catholic priests in Nicaragua's government, says he does not expect to hear anything political in the Pope's remarks. But then he takes a jab at the nation's church leadership:

''I hope the Holy Father will manifest his preferential love for the poor, which is not being manifested by Archbishop (Miguel) Obando y Bravo.''

The consensus seems to be that the Pope will talk in relatively vague terms that both sides will try to use to best advantage. But the visit dramatizes the differences between government and church:

* The church hierarchy charges that the Nicaraguan government is Marxist-Leninist and is suffocating religious expression and human rights. It says the government is trying to create a church that would parallel the traditional church in order to divide it.

''Our main concerns are Catholic education, which is very restricted by the powers of the state; evangelism, which is difficult because the state controls the communication media; and the violation of human rights,'' Fr. Carballo says.

The church hierarchy shares these concerns with its followers through the Sunday Bulletin, which is distributed in parishes, and through Radio Catolica, which has been shut down several times. Their worries about education were also expressed in a December letter of the Conferencia Episcopal.

* The Sandinista government charges that the church hierarchy, which historically has aligned itself with the moneyed class, has fallen back to its old role. It claims the church, encouraged by the Reagan administration, is trying to destabilize the revolutionary process.

Christian Sandinistas believe that John Paul's presence will show that he accepts the revolutionary government.

Many close observers say the Sandinistas from the start have underestimated the depth of the church's influence, and that they didn't know how to deal with the hierarchy.

''We were fighters, not diplomats,'' acknowledges one government supporter. The Sandinistas thought that it would be easier to influence the Catholic church than it was.

The Sandinistas say the problem in the deepening church-state conflict stems from the hierarchy again aligning itself with the rich. The hierarchy, say the Sandinistas, ''can't see the structural and social changes that have been carried out. They live in the past.''

''We felt the necessity to accompany these social developments with Christian input in a very profound process of change,'' states Padre Angel.

Church spokesman Carballo, of course, sees it differently: ''Lamentably the church is divided,'' he says. ''It is divided because of Marxism. The problem is with priests who have more loyalty to the government than to us. . . . The government doesn't understand the role of the church.''

The government has restricted press coverage of the Pope's visit. ''We wanted to avoid speculation and misinformation,'' Foreign Minister D'Escoto explains.

A government commission representing the junta and Curia was formed shortly after the revolution to iron out their differences. But the commission never really got off the ground. Sandinistas claim that the archbishop just allowed it to die. Carballo charges the commission was ''a front.'' He adds, ''The government never really wanted to talk.''

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