In a rare face-to-face meeting with church critics of U.S. policies in Central America, President Reagan heard a group of Presbyterian leaders dispute claims by the administration that there is religious persecution in Nicaragua.
The president, in turn, told the eight members of the delegation that they were being deceived by the propaganda of Nicaragua's leftist Sandinista government, according to the church leaders who took part in the private meeting.
The meeting Wednesday came two weeks after the president telephoned the Rev. Donn Moomaw, pastor of the Bel Air (Calif.) Presbyterian Church, to voice concern over a statement on Central America adopted in June by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Reagan attended the church while in California.
The Presbyterian statement attacked U.S. military intervention in Central America and accused the Reagan administration of spurning negotiations toward peaceful settlements. The report also condemned what it described as the numerous atrocities committed by the Nicaraguan contras.
All of those present, except for Moomaw, were members of a church task force that drafted the report.
Gary Demarest, who acted as spokesman for the delegation, said of the meeting: "He was most gracious, very warm, and we were certainly appreciative of the fact that he and the vice president would give us so much time."
Demarest, pastor of La Canada (Calif.) Presbyterian Church, said in an interview after the meeting that neither administration nor church leaders minced words about their positions on the Central America conflict. Both Reagan and National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci said they had read the 41-page Presbyterian position paper and remarked "it was obvious that we have some substantial disagreements," Demarest reported.
Church leaders disputed administration allegations that there "is no religious freedom in Nicaragua," Demarest said. "There is very little evidence, if any, of religious persecution. We're not gathering any complaints from people we speak to about restrictions on their freedom."
Demarest came to Washington directly from Nicaragua, where he helped build houses in a rural village north of Managua, as part of a project sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, an Americus, Ga.-based ministry.
Demarest said administration "statements on religious freedom are simply not supported by the reality in Nicaragua today." He said the officials said they had in mind censorship imposed by the leftist Sandinista government on media operations of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church. Demarest said the delegation agreed that Nicaragua must provide full freedom but that this is not likely to happen until the United States stops the war in the country.
"I told them I have been asking Nicaraguans for the past two weeks what message they would want me to bring to Washington, and whether pro-Sandinista or anti-Sandinista, they have said over and over again, 'Please stop the war,' " said Demarest.
According to Demarest, Reagan told the church delegation the Sandinistas are "the masters of the massive disinformation campaign" and that the church task force has obviously been deceived by this effort.
Much of the exchange consisted of Reagan relaying anecdotes about suppression of freedom in Nicaragua and Demarest saying they did not reflect the picture he has seen recently in Nicaragua, he recounted.
"The feeling was that the administration's position is very clear and consistent and it's unlikely that anything we said will result in any changes of direction," he said. The White House said it would have no comment on the exchange.
Others in the delegation were Jo Anne Cassell of Princeton, N.J.; David Little, Charlottesville; John S. Munday, Paoli, Pa.; Harriet Nelson, Napa, Calif., a former moderator of the church; Jeanne C. Marshall, Kansas City, Mo., and Rachel Smith, a missionary who works in Guatemala City.