A coalition of religious groups launched a drive this week to raise $27 million for humanitarian aid in Nicaragua and to protest U.S. funding of contra rebels seeking to overthrow the Sandinista government in that country.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit said the Quest for Peace campaign is intended as a "direct challenge" to the U.S. aid, which he said contributes to continuing violence in Nicaragua.

The Quest for Peace funds are intended strictly for humanitarian purposes, such as medical and school supplies. Nicaraguan church groups will distribute the funds and monitor their use to make sure they are not diverted for military purposes, Gumbleton said.

Gumbleton said the U.S. aid to the contras provides the equivalent of one million guerrillas raiding the United States from sanctuaries in Mexico and Canada.

In an unrelated development, government censors in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua deleted most of a letter from Pope John Paul II about tensions between church and state, then reversed themselves and allowed the letter to be published and broadcast in full.

The letter, intended for Monday's celebration of the Day of the Immaculate Conception, urged Catholics not to be discouraged by "intimidation and criticism of priests" in Nicaragua.

Last October the Nicaraguan government expanded its censorship laws to require that any organization, including the church, submit for prior censorship any statement it wishes to make public.

An emergency overflow shelter for homeless men will be opened tomorrow in Rockville at 600 E. Gude Drive by the United Church Center for Community Ministries in cooperation with the city's Department of Community Resources.

The Montgomery County shelters housed 1,017 persons during the winter months last year, the United Church Center said, but 700 were turned away.

Besides professional staff, the center needs volunteers to help run the shelter overnight, launder sheets and towels and bring in hot food. Contributions of gloves, socks, caps, scarves, blankets, sheets, foam rubber mats, sleeping bags, cots and money are also sought.

For further information call Adrianne Carr at 762-8682.

New York police have apprehended two men who they say robbed the poor box of St. Patrick's Cathedral last month of $7,000.

The theft was allegedly masterminded by a part-time janitor who recruited the robbers and provided them with a map of the cathedral detailing where the money was kept.

Police put the man, who was subsequently fired, under surveillance and ultimately persuaded him that it was in his best interest to cooperate.

The night of the robbery, Nov. 30, the robbers, wearing ski masks and carrying revolvers, surprised four ushers and then handcuffed and locked them with two other janitors in a vault.

Israeli philanthropist and peace crusader Abie Nathan, who happened to be in New York at the time of the robbery, was so outraged over the theft that he gave the cathedral a check to cover the amount of money stolen.

A poll of black clergymen in Chicago, conducted by the Chicago Sun-Times, has reported that the controversial Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan is gaining support among blacks of all social classes and religious groups.

Farrakhan has been sharply criticized for his increasingly harsh attacks on Jews and his unbridled anti-Semitism. The newspaper poll said that blacks are looking beyond his anti-Semitism and supporting Farrakhan because of his work with the poor and his challenges to them to pull themselves up from welfare rolls to self-sufficiency.

Last month all 14 black members of Chicago's City Council voted against a resolution condemning Farrakhan for racist and anti-Semitic statements.

The Rev. Perry Michael Smith, 48, who has served churches in Illinois, Missouri and New York, began his ministry this week as rector of the Church of Ascension and St. Agnes Northwest Washington. He succeeds the Rev. Fredrick H. Meisel, who has retired.

The Rev. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, professor of New Testament at the Catholic University of America, received the school's Patronal Medal last week.

The Rev. Jean S. Young, currently of the Laytonsville United Methodist Church, has been appointed by Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel to be superintendent of the Washington West District beginning July 1.

The Rev. Byron B. Brought, currently pastor of the Glenmont United Methodist Church in Wheaton, has been appointed superintendent of the church's Annapolis district, effective Jan. 1.

The Rev. David W.A. Taylor, pastor and former ecumenical officer of the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the U.S., is the new general secretary for strategy and interpretation for the Consultation on Church Union.