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Faith of Jehovah's Witnesses Tested by Nicaragua Strife

June 15, 1985|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Giovanni Gaitan and Alejo Sevilla wear their Sandinista army uniforms unwillingly, pants and sleeves rolled up in stubborn protest.

According to their mothers, the two youths have been ridiculed, beaten and marched into combat zones with their hands tied.

Gaitan and Sevilla are Jehovah's Witnesses, the Brooklyn-based Christian sect whose aggressive proselytizing emphasizes predictions of a coming Armageddon. For them and other Nicaraguan members of the sect, these are distressing times.

Jehovah's Witnesses have gone against the grain of numerous governments because of their refusal to bear arms, salute flags or otherwise render allegiance to the temporal powers that be. In Nicaragua, where the Marxist-oriented Sandinista government has been trying to organize the masses and defeat a U.S.-backed guerrilla movement, the friction has been especially sharp.

Kingdom Halls Seized

More than 40 buildings called Kingdom Halls, where Witnesses hold religious meetings, were seized by the Sandinistas three years ago and have not been returned. Congregations now meet furtively in members' homes. The government denies them permission to gather in large assemblies or to import religious literature.

Because of the military draft, hundreds of young Witnesses have fled the country, church leaders say, and about 15 of their members are in jail for draft resistance. Gaitan, 18, and Sevilla, 19, have asked to be put in jail but have been kept in the army.

Marta Arellano, Gaitan's mother, said he answered a draft notice in January but refused to submit to a physical examination, to take military training or to take an alternative assignment as a kitchen helper.

She said he was taken with a combat unit to the province of Nueva Segovia, near the Honduran border, where the Sandinista army is battling the guerrillas, the contras . He has been beaten and kicked, she said, and his hands have been kept tied for days.

"They tied him up to put a uniform on him," she said. "Tied up, they have taken him into combat."

Forced to Carry Rifle

Gaitan has been forced to carry a rifle and ammunition, but he has steadfastly refused to use them, according to his mother, a thin woman with curly hair and a wrinkled brow.

"They have taken him into combat six times now," she said. "He feels well, he feels calm, and he trusts in Jehovah."

Sevilla, who is in the same battalion as Gaitan, was also forced to wear a uniform, his mother, Socorro Davila de Sevilla, said.

"Five men grabbed him to put on the military clothes," she said, "and he couldn't sleep for several nights because his hands were tied. They beat him on the legs, in the ribs, and on the face. They took him to combat through a difficult area with his hands tied."

In a letter to his mother written on small sheets of lined note paper, Gaitan described a forced march:

"The backpack and the rifle are put on me and my hands are tied behind me again, and I walk that way for a while, and they untie me to sleep, and the next day I continue with the rifle and my hands tied in front. . . . That is how we got to the combat zone and that is how I spent two more days until we left."

'At Threshold of Death'

"He has been at the threshold of death," Sevilla's fiancee, Amalia Orozco, said.

His mother added: "God is the only one who saves him."

Many Witnesses have avoided the draft simply by not registering as required at age 17. Others take direct action.

"Many are hiding out," said Lino Hernandez, coordinator of the Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights.

Still, some draft evaders continue to evangelize house-to-house.

"We have to do it," a 22-year-old said, declining to give his name. "We are predicating every day."

It was hot, and this young man sat in the shade of a red-flowered poinciana tree in the backyard of a run-down Managua home. With him were two other young men, ages 20 and 18, both Witnesses.

The 18-year-old said he had to drop out of high school because a draft registration card is required for enrollment.

Francisco Velasquez, an elder in the church, said that perhaps 500 young Witnesses have left the country to avoid the draft. About 15 are in jail, he said, and an unknown number are at liberty pending legal proceedings for draft evasion.

5,000 Members Claimed

Velasquez, a portly printer who wears tinted, wire-rim glasses, said the church in Nicaragua has about 5,000 baptized members and about that many more preparing to be baptized.

In 1982, Sandinista mobs took over 42 of the church's 44 Kingdom Halls in Nicaragua. The halls, mostly modest structures built by members of the church, are now used by neighborhood Sandinista Defense Committees, militia units and other official groups.

The church has appealed to the government and courts to get the buildings back. In a May 28 letter to President Daniel Ortega, elders of the church asked him to intercede.

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