Francisco Rigores, a priest in an Afro-Cuban religious sect called Santeria, has had a tough time practicing his religion in Washington.

Santeria rituals include sacrificing animals on feast days. But as Rigores prepared for a religious observance last month, the animals he planned to slaughter at his home -- including a calf, a goat and a pig -- were seized by humane society officers. They accused him of mistreating the animals.

"Everybody was waiting for the food," said Rigores, 48, a carpenter who says he spent 15 years as a political prisoner in Cuba before arriving here in 1980 during the Mariel boatlift. "I lost face in front of them because I was treated as though I were a common thief."

About 200 friends and neighbors had been invited to his Park Road home to share the feast. "There was almost a riot," recalled Marcelo Fernandez-Zayas, a Cuban community leader.

The religious conflict has set off negotiations among local and federal officials seeking to stem the controversy. D.C. police, federal prosecutors and other city officials are scheduled to meet today to consider possible actions. One issue, officials say, is whether barring the ritual slaughters may be construed as a violation of First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.

D.C. police have expressed concern over possible protests by Cuban Americans if the animal sacrifices are prevented.

Last month, Jean Goldenberg, the Washington Humane Society's executive director, said the society did not object to Rigores' plans to slaughter the animals for food. "It's the manner in which it's done," she said. The animals had been found tethered and boxed in an unlit basement.

"These animals had their legs tied, they were on their sides and they couldn't move," Goldenberg said. "The pig was shoved into a crate sideways and was unable to make any movement at all."

Officials of the Washington Humane Society could not be reached this weekend for further comment on the Santeria issue.

Meanwhile, Rigores has threatened a protest in front of the White House if the animals are not returned in time for a holiday sacrifice on Friday. "I will kill {the animals} any place {police officials} tell me, but if I don't get permission I will kill them in front of the White House," he said.

Friday's slaughter is to be in observance of a feast day for Santa Barbara, who is regarded as a deity by Santeros, Rigores said.

According to police, Rigores' animals were consficated Oct. 3 after police received a complaint from a neighbor.

When police arrived, they found the calf, goat and pig along with six doves, three chickens, three roosters and six quails. Rigores said he had just purchased the animals from a farm in Thurmont, Md., for nearly $400. He had planned to celebrate his birthday and the feast day of St. Francis, his patron saint, with a slaughter and a feast the following day.

In the Santeria religion, important feast days are observed Dec. 4 and Dec. 17, and Rigores said he plans to celebrate those holidays according to his religious beliefs. He has slaughtered animals at his home during the past three years without receiving any complaints, he said.

Similar issues have risen recently in other cities. In April, a New York City judge upheld plans by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to investigate animal cruelty complaints against a group of Santeros.

The court ruled that the First Amendment, while guaranteeing religious freedom, does not protect all aspects of religion. The Santeria group is appealing that decision.

In August, Santeros sparked a controversy in Hialeah, Fla., northwest of Miami, by opening a church where they planned to carry out animal sacrifices. City and state officials handed the Santeros a victory by ruling that humane slaughter of animals is legal under Florida laws.

In Washington, representatives from the D.C. police department, the Mayor's Office of Latino Affairs, the city Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs and the Washington Humane Society are expected to attend today's 11 a.m. meeting at the U.S. attorney's office.

"We're just trying to keep the peace," a police official said. "If we can do it {by permitting the slaughter} without bringing harm to anybody in the community, that's fine. But if it's a violation of the law, let's bring it to the U.S. attorney's office."

It is unclear how many of Washington's estimated 10,000 Cuban Americans are followers of the Santeria religion, officials say. In Florida, officials estimate that as many as 60,000 Dade County residents belong to the Santeria faith.

The Santeria religion is believed to have developed in Cuba as an offshoot of Catholicism more than 400 years ago. Rigores described himself as a Babalao, or high priest, and said that virtually every Cuban involved in the Mariel boatlift practices some form of the Santeria faith.

The Rev. Jose Somoza, a Catholic priest who is pastor of Our Lady, Queen of the Americas Hispanic Parish in Adams-Morgan, said he knows of several practitioners of the Santeria religion, but he added, "I don't feel there are a great number of them."

Fernandez-Zayas said he believes that there are at least a dozen Santeria priests in Washington, including Rigores.

The Santeria religion is said to have developed in Cuba when African slaves were brought to the island to replace a local Indian labor force. The Indians were dying in large numbers from diseases carried to Cuba from Spain.

Virginia Gutierrez, an anthropologist who has studied the Santeros, said that Africans adopted Catholicism in Cuba to avoid alienating the Spaniards, who were considered harsh. The African Cubans developed a system of worshiping Catholic saints as representatives of African deities, she said.