MOSCOW -- Communist Party officials are being urged to show greater tolerance toward religious believers while they themselves keep away from church.

In what seems to be a drive toward a clearer separation of church and party, two long articles in the Soviet press pilloried officials for wrong behavior last week.

In a rare reference to the Soviet constitution's guarantee of religious freedom, the latest issue of Moscow News asked indignantly, "Why on earth shouldn't Ivan Martynov, a war veteran who worked for 30 years as a fitter, fight for his constitutional rights?"

Martynov, the article explained, was one of hundreds of "honest working people" in the city of Kirov, about 1,000 miles east of Moscow, who had petitioned the local authorities for permission to build a church.

Kirov, with a population of 400,000, has only one Russian Orthodox church, compared with 44 in Moscow. Its second church was closed in 1962 "in line with the then official policy that we should enter communism without religious people."

In its place, the city planned a monument for its 600th anniversary with a time capsule containing a message for future generations. The Moscow News reporters wrote scathingly that the message ought to read, "Forgive us."

Future generations, the article continued, would be more thankful if Kirov preserved its historical and architectural monuments and left behind "a morally healthy society -- something that we are trying to build at the moment."

The article said the one functioning church is so full that "you can't raise your hand to make the sign of the cross," and queues for funeral services are sometimes so long that hearses have to wait for hours. Yet when the reporter went along with an inspector from the government's council for religious affairs to the regional party secretary, Yuri Karacharov, he told them threateningly, " 'I hear you've been inciting the believers,' " the article said.

According to the account, Karacharov claimed there was no need to register a new parish and build a church. He had warned believers that their addresses would be taken and house calls made "to give them a talk."

Moscow News commented, "We can only move away from today's economic crisis if full legality and unconditional observance of human rights, including the right to freedom of conscience, become an absolute norm of our life."

Another Soviet publication, Socialisticheskaya Industriya, also defended protection for believers, but warned party members not to practice religion themselves. In an article headlined "Duplicity," the journal described how a photographer in Issyk-kul, a large district in Kirgizia, found himself manhandled when he tried to photograph an Islamic funeral.

Among the mourners, he discovered, was the regional party secretary, the local police chief and several other senior officials.

The article said the constitutional rights of believers were one thing, the responsibility of people with party cards quite another. It was hypocritical for officials at party meetings to discourage members from religious observance while "fraternizing with Islam themselves."

It is no accident that the article concerned one of the Soviet Union's Central Asian republics. In Russia, the Orthodox Church is largely on the fringes, and only a small proportion of people attend services, although there was an increase in baptisms during the Brezhnev years when the collapse of public morality produced a small religious revival.

In Central Asia, Islam is a more central part of life, and deeply imbedded in traditional thinking. The party paper in Tadzhikistan, which borders on Kirgizia, wrote last month that Islam was on the rise in Central Asia, and on religious holidays crowds at mosques are enormous.