MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo on Sunday launched an unusually direct protest against the Sandinista government, comparing two exiled Roman Catholic Church leaders to apostles Peter and Paul, who were persecuted for their religious beliefs.
In a Mass with overtones of a political rally, Obando likened the banned men--Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega and Father Bismarck Carballo--to martyrs who have "paid with their blood" for the Catholic Church.
The front pews of Santo Domingo de Las Sierritas Church were filled with conservative opposition political leaders, who sang and clapped to the accompaniment of electric guitar and drums. Several times, Obando's homily was interrupted by animated applause.
A Sandinista Television System cameraman recorded the faces of many of the largely affluent parishioners at the Mass. Also present was a crowd of international journalists, whom Obando had to persuade to make way for those who wished to take communion.
Obando is Central America's only cardinal and the most powerful opposition leader in Nicaragua. This was his first Sunday Mass since the government deported Vega, vice president of the Nicaraguan Bishops' Conference and, like Obando, an outspoken critic of the Marxist-led government.
The Sandinistas accused Vega of "unpatriotic and criminal" support of the U.S.-backed rebels, known as contras , who are fighting the regime in the countryside. He was expelled Friday across the border into Honduras.
On June 28, the government refused to allow Bismarck, the church's main local spokesman, to re-enter Nicaragua after traveling to a conference in Paris.
President Daniel Ortega defended the forced exile of the two churchmen, saying they were banned for their political support of U.S. policy, not for religious reasons. He contended that there is religious freedom in Nicaragua.
Warning on Media
Obando in his homily warned the opposition not to let the government manipulate "the suffering of the church" in its official press, adding that government versions are "sometimes worse than lies."
"No doubt our brothers from Barricada and El Nuevo Diario are here," he said, refering to the official and pro-government newspapers. Last month the government closed La Prensa, Nicaragua's only opposition newspaper, in which Obando was often featured prominently.
As in many other Latin American countries, the church here has become an alternative source of information. Pope John Paul II's harsh criticism Saturday of the churchmen's banishment did not appear in the official press but was read to the approximately 450 parishioners at Obando's Mass.
The church also traditionally plays a political role in Latin America, and in Nicaragua, a pro-government faction calling itself the "popular church" disagrees with the hierarchy about the Sandinistas.
A Bishop and His Sheep
In the poor Riguero neighborhood here, Father William Morales, a popular-church priest, celebrated a Mass in which he condemned "a bishop who has left his sheep." He focused his homily on 32 civilians who were killed recently when a truck in which they were riding in northern Nicaragua was blown up by a land mine that the government accused the contras of planting.
Speaking of Vega, Morales said: "A bishop, who should be a pastor, pacifying and healing his sheep . . . has moved away from his sheep in the moment when the wolf arrives to assassinate them. He prefers to stay with the wolf because he is afraid to be among the poor sheep who are thriving amid difficulties."
The octagonal walls of Morales' church are painted with murals depicting martyrs of the Sandinista revolution. The building was filled with the sound of folk music from congo drums and flute.
"Our church is not reduced to one bishop," Morales said. "Our church is also . . . all of the martyrs and delegates of the word who have given their lives" for the revolution.
Thinly Veiled Criticism
Cardinal Obando normally couches his criticisms of the Sandinista government in religious parables, but this Sunday's was thinly veiled.
"The prophet gives words of hope to a people who are in exile, a people banished far from its homeland. He tells the people that peace will come in a torrent," Obando said.
"Many talk of peace imposed by fear, by weapons . . . of many deaths, of cemeteries. But Christ speaks of a peace that man finds when he strengthens his ties to God, his ties of brotherhood."
The Sandinistas have built a 62,000-member army plus a reserve force and militia to fight the contras and confront what they believe is a coming U.S. invasion.
Shortage of Priests
Obando said there was a shortage of priests in Nicaragua even before the exile of Vega and Carballo. In 1984, the government expelled 10 foreign priests for participating in a protest march led by Obando on behalf of a priest accused of counterrevolutionary activities. Most of the country's priests are foreigners.
"The Nicaraguan people must plead that the Lord send them more (churchmen) to teach the people . . . that human rights must be respected where they are suffocated," he said.
He told of how apostles Peter and Paul were jailed for evangelizing and how word of their prosecution was kept from their followers.
"Here we saw a blow to freedom of the press, to freedom of expression," Obando said. He said Peter and Paul "wore the mark of Christ, and I think also Bismarck Carballo and Pablo Vega wear the mark of Christ."
After the Mass, leaders of six opposition parties met for an hour with Obando at his residence. Afterward, Social Christian Party President Erick Ramirez said, "The church, like us, is waiting to resolve the problems of Nicaragua in a nonviolent, civic manner."