MANAGUA, Nicaragua — For eight years, Revolution Square has been center stage for the Sandinistas--a space in downtown Managua filled by the ruling party's supporters for each official pronouncement on its revolutionary course.
But Sunday the square was occupied, for the third day in a row, by another crowd and a different message. The spellbound audience, 25,000 strong, belonged to Jimmy Swaggart, the first big-time American evangelist to hold a revival in Sandinista-run Nicaragua.
As dead Sandinista heroes Augusto Cesar Sandino and Carlos Fonseca Amador appeared to glare down from portraits hung from the National Palace, Swaggart preached on a platform by the ruins of the earthquake-destroyed Roman Catholic cathedral. Answering the altar call, about 10,000 people came forward to accept Christianity during the three-day revival.
The plaza's transformation, which Swaggart termed "the miracle of Managua," is a part of a changing political ambiance that offers more freedom for non-Sandinista groups under the terms of a Central American peace accord.
It marked a convergence of interests between President Daniel Ortega, a Marxist-inspired revolutionary striving to prove his commitment to religious freedom, and Swaggart, a 52-year-old globe-trotting evangelist whose anti-communism is moderated by a divine inspiration to preach the Gospel in new lands.
"Some people say this is just a public relations move by the government," Swaggart told the crowd Sunday. "But the real reason the government opened its doors is much bigger than public relations. It is the work of God!"
For years, the Sandinistas have feuded bitterly with the Roman Catholic church, which claims 85% of the nation's souls, and with some Protestant sects over alleged abuses of government authority. In Rome last month, Ortega received a cool reception from Pope John Paul II.
But last Thursday, Ortega gave Swaggart what the evangelist called a "most relaxed" personal reception, ending with a prayer for the Sandinista leader.
Afterward, as the two men met reporters, Swaggart emphasized he was "not here to give advice or get involved in politics, only to lift up Jesus Christ."
But Ortega said the preacher's pacifist message will aid the government's "struggle for peace" against Nicaraguan guerrillas and a hostile Administration in Washington. Swaggart replied: "In respect to peace and prosperity, we desire the same things for Nicaragua."
Call from the Holy Spirit
Swaggart says the Holy Spirit first told him to come to Nicaragua a year ago, during a flight over the country between revivals he held in Costa Rica and El Salvador.
A request by American evangelist Billy Graham to preach here was turned down last year, and Swaggart's was not considered until a month ago, when the government lifted wartime curbs on civil liberties to comply with the peace accord.
Even then, Ortega feared that Swaggart, whose weekly program he has watched on American television, might say something here to embarrass the Sandinistas.
The man credited with persuading Ortega is Newman B. Peyton Jr., a Texas-born businessman who promotes Christianity through personal contact with political leaders around the world. One Sandinista aide described Peyton, who has spent hours with Ortega over the years, as "Daniel's pastor."
Sixto Ulloa, a Sandinista legislator who helped host the crusade, said many in the ruling party opposed it and threatened to "crucify" him.
Impact on Conservatives
"We have to look at it this way," Ulloa said. "This man reaches many conservatives in the United States. What are they going to say when they see him on television, preaching in Managua? They are going to run out of arguments to support (President) Reagan's war against Nicaragua."
In his sermons, which were translated into Spanish by a Costa Rican aide, Swaggart asked God to "pray for the government," as he does in other countries, and to "heal the hurt in Nicaragua." He urged an end to the 6-year guerrilla war but took no sides.
"Half the world says the fault lies with the Sandinistas, but the fault is not with the Sandinistas," he said. "The other half of the world says the fault lies with the Contras, but the fault is not with the Contras. The fault is with Satan. The devil is the cause of Nicaragua's problems . . . and Jesus is the answer."
Despite Swaggart's caution, some associates said that his Managua crusade, to be televised this summer in the United States, might alienate politically conservative donors who pour $12 million a month into the Jimmy Swaggart World Ministries in Baton Rouge, La.
"This will cost Jimmy in credibility," Peyton said. "He knows there is going to be a reaction." But Jerald Ogg, the crusade director, said: "I think many of our viewers will see Nicaragua in a different light."
Gain for Protestants