MANAGUA, Nicaragua — In an impassioned Holy Week appeal, Nicaragua's Roman Catholic primate admonished Sandinista and rebel leaders Thursday not to betray the hopes raised by their preliminary peace accord.
"The government and the resistance have given their word before the Nicaraguan people and the world," Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo said. "To break their word would be to lose credibility forever and pass into the darkest pages of history."
The cardinal's stern warning, in a homily at his morning Mass, reflected the mixture of hope and skepticism that Nicaraguans feel about peace prospects as they observe the Holy Week.
It was also an affirmation that the Catholic leader will to try to mobilize popular pressure against any violation of the accord signed March 23 in Sapoa, Nicaragua. About 85% of all Nicaraguans are baptized Catholics.
During the 6-year Nicaraguan war, Obando's voice has been the most insistent in calling for peace negotiations between the Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contras. In a vindication of his efforts, the revolutionary government 5 months ago accepted such talks and chose Obando to mediate the early rounds.
When the warring parties finally agreed in the direct talks at Sapoa to stop shooting, they invited the cardinal to help oversee the remaining steps of their peace accord.
It calls for a formal cease-fire to replace the current 10-day-old unsupervised truce as soon as both armies finish mapping a separation of their forces. The cease-fire is to run through May, while rebel leaders come to Managua to negotiate the political terms of their troops' disarmament.
In one way, the Holy Thursday Mass was a celebration of Obando's successful contribution to the quickly-unfolding peace process. More than 2,000 parishioners jammed the dimly lit auditorium of a Catholic girls' school and overflowed into the shade of mango trees outside. They interrupted the homily six times with applause.
"Long live the cardinal of peace!" they shouted.
But hearing the cardinal's message, one might have thought the war is still raging, even though both armies and neutral observers have reported only a few minor truce violations.
"Let us say yes to life!" Obando intoned from the auditorium stage. "It is time, my good brothers, to end factional confrontations. May the scorpion of hatred stop spilling its poison on our people.
"We must understand," he went on, "that our problems ought to be resolved through civilized channels, through dialogue, at the negotiating table, not in the trenches, not with rifles, bayonets, cannons and mortars."
Obando brought the 85 priests of his archdiocese to concelebrate the Mass, which commemorates the Last Supper, and to lend weight to his message.
"We declare with the full force of our lungs, 'No to war, no to the instruments of death that have caused us so much anxiety and pain! Yes to the olive branch of peace!' " he said at the end.
The Mass also marked Obando's 20th anniversary as archbishop of Managua. He dressed in yellow vestments and the red cap he received when he became a cardinal in 1985. As he left the auditorium, staff in hand, his somber expression broke into a smile. Parishioners formed a human corridor into the school parking lot, stretching their hands for the cardinal to grasp or to kiss.
"He is our pastor," said Roberto Aviles, a merchant, as he stood in the lot. "The Lord has heard the prayers of our people and illuminated the cardinal to bring peace to Nicaragua."
Many people leaving Mass said there can be no lasting settlement unless the government complies, during the 2-month cease-fire, with its pledges to make Nicaragua freer politically. They said that they favor such rebel demands as the end of exclusive Sandinista control of the army, the judiciary and television broadcasting.
"We are always so pessimistic that things will really change," said Maura Robles de Salinas, a homemaker. "We must pray a lot and ask the Lord to change the hearts of our rulers."
Father Bismarck Carballo, a close aide to the cardinal, said the church has reacted with "realism" to the Sapoa accord. "Outside the country, they're saying the war is over, but we Nicaraguans have a right to be skeptical," he said. "We believe in deeds, not words."
Roger Guevara Mena, an opposition leader, said the cardinal is trying to create public pressure on both sides to "overcome ideology and partisan interests" and keep the peace process on track.
Obando invited Catholics to join him in a 4-hour march through the streets of Managua today tracing the Stations of the Cross in memory of the death of Jesus. He said the Good Friday procession will also be "a demonstration of our desire for peace."
Carlos Hernandez, a young mechanic at Thursday's Mass, said he was hopeful about peace "because our people don't want more bloodshed, more grieving mothers crying, more mutilated children."
"We have faith that the government of President (Daniel) Ortega will make concessions to the resistance, and we have faith that the resistance will also show good will," Hernandez said.