ROME — The freed American hostage, Father Lawrence M. Jenco, arrived in Rome on Tuesday and said he was carrying a message for Pope John Paul II from the Shia Muslims who held him captive for nearly 19 months. Jenco is scheduled to have an audience with the Pope today.
Jenco declined to describe the message, explaining that it was not up to him but to the Pope to disclose its contents if he wished. The Vatican rarely reveals the subject matter of papal audiences.
The freed Roman Catholic priest, accompanied by 12 family members who joined him in West Germany after he was released from captivity in Lebanon on Saturday, said he also would talk to the Pope about the three remaining Americans being held hostage by Shia extremists.
Item for Discussion
"I am sure that is one of the items I will speak to him about," Jenco said in a weary voice. He is scheduled to meet with John Paul, probably accompanied by his family, before the pontiff's regular Wednesday public audience.
After the papal audience, Jenco will fly to London in the special U.S. Air Force C-141 that brought him to Rome and will meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert A. K. Runcie, head of the Church of England, who has been active in attempts to gain freedom for the hostages in Lebanon. Terry Waite, Runcie's personal envoy, who has made several trips to the Middle East attempting to resolve the hostage crisis, joined Jenco at a U.S. military hospital in Wiesbaden, West Germany, to accompany him to Rome and London.
Wearing a clerical collar, with a "Free the Hostages" button in the lapel of his dark suit, Jenco appeared tired but pleased to be free.
'Just Very Happy'
"I'm just very happy to be here," he said. "I was ordained in Rome in 1959 and celebrated my 26th anniversary as a priest in captivity. It's just kind of nice to be present in the Holy City."
The 51-year-old former director of Catholic Relief Services in Lebanon flew to Rome from Frankfurt, West Germany, after two days of intensive medical examinations and debriefing by American officials in Wiesbaden concerning his captivity.
State Department spokesman Michael Austrian, who also accompanied the party from Wiesbaden, said hospital tests showed that Jenco was in "stable condition physically." A U.S. military physician said he suffered from an "ongoing heart disease" that may have been a factor in his release.
Asked about the debriefing, Austrian explained: "I think you can take it as a given that a crime has been committed. The holding of American citizens as hostage is against federal law. We are interested in all of the details of his kidnaping and incarceration."
17 Jailed in Kuwait
The terrorists who held Jenco and the other Americans call themselves Islamic Jihad (Islamic Holy War) and are believed to be Shia Muslims loyal to Iran's Islamic fundamentalist regime. In exchange for the freedom of the three Americans they hold, Islamic Jihad has been demanding the release of 17 Shias imprisoned in Kuwait for having bombed the U.S. and French embassies there. However, Islamic Jihad attributed the release of Jenco to humanitarian principles, citing his ill health.
Before departing from Frankfurt, the former captive obliquely confirmed that his captors' concern for his health was a factor as he thanked them, by name, for kindnesses that he said they had shown him.
"After going through hours of diverse physical examinations, your concern for my health was well founded," he said to his former captors in a statement that he read to reporters. "Thanks again for that caring concern."
Haj, Said and Ahab
The Joliet, Ill., priest addressed several other remarks to three Muslims, whom he knew as Haj, Said and Ahab.
To Haj, he mentioned the videotape that he carried with him when he was released in the Syrian-controlled Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon on Saturday. The tape showed hostage David P. Jacobsen, 55, of Huntington Beach, Calif., director of the American University Hospital in West Beirut, urging President Reagan to negotiate for the Americans' release and warning that, if he does not negotiate, "our release will be death."
"Haj, I clung to that video cassette and was able to give it to Associated Press," Jenco said. "As you know, I did not know its contents. I worried about it being given, and I was greatly relieved to give it to AP, and it was aired."
Jenco thanked a man he called Said for his "last-minute counsel" and added that "the small crucifix Ahab gave me was a great comfort during those final hours" before his release.