The Rev. Jim Jones and his odd flock were not strangers to the people of this isolated, sparsely populated country.

But neither were they friends.

Guyanese questioned here yesterday said they knew of the Peoples Temple community, and of the foreigners who lived there, but had little idea who they were or why they were in Guyana.

Still reeling from the shock of the massacre, they repeatedly referred to it as "trouble between Americans" that many have taken a place on their soil but had little to do with their country.

"We had no problems with them before this," Guyana's information minister, Shirley Field-Riley, said yesterday. "They obeyed all the laws."

Leading opponents of Prime Minister Forbes Burnham's government contended, however that the People Temple seemed except from many of Guyana's laws, particularly those governing payment of import and export duties and, as became clear last weekend, the regulation of firearms.

But as an editor of the leading opposition newspaper said, "We never really investigated them. There were lots of charges and suspicious, but at the same time I received numerous letters from friends in the United States telling me what a wonderful group it was."

For the most part, however, distance and lack of communications made the Temple community something unknown to most Guyanese in any more than a vague sense.

Clearly, Jones and the Temple were in favor with the Burnham government.

When important visitors came to the community, such as California's Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally, who came twice over the past two years, they and Jones were often hosted by Deputy Prime Minister Ptolemy Reid and received by Burnham.

Temple adherents, who maintain a large residence in Georgetown and operated a second hand clothing and junk store here, often attended government functions en masse, local residents said.

During a hotly contested political campaign last summer, when Burnham won a referendum allowing him to postpone this year's elections, locals said Temple people did door-to-door canvassing.

Aside from any direct political connections, however, the Peoples Temple Agricultural and Medical Project was the largest and best example of a government land use project designed to allow groups of outsiders to develop the largely unpopulated jungle that covers most of Guyana.

At Jonestown, named after the community's leader when it was founded in late 1973, the members cleared and ploughed some of the desert jungle in South America. Situated 159 miles northwest of Georgetown, the area is reachable only by riverboat or aircraft.

Additionally, Jones espoused an ideology, which his wife in an interview several years ago called Marxist social philosophy," that was in line with that of both Burnham and leading political opponent Cheddi Jagan.

Since he was first elected in 1964, two years before British Guiana became independent and changed the spelling of its name, and especially in the 1970s, Burnham has moved increasingly to the left. His government which has nationalized most foreign enterprises and maintains close ties with Cuba, is considered socialist.

Jagan is a Marxist, and there was apparently little objection to a community that most agreed was a working socialist society.

While racial problems between East Indians and blacks - Guyana's two main racial groups - have historically brought conflict here, Guyana's public posture is that of a country with rare racial harmony.

Visitors to the temple community have said that such harmony appeared to be a reality at Jonestown, and temple publicity noted that 90 percent of the community's residents were black or from minority groups.

The introduction to a locally printed temple "Progress Report - 1977" notes that the agricultural project "was initiated by Rev. Jim Jones in December of 1973. He conceived of the project in order to assist the Guyanese government in a small measure to feed, clothe and house its people, and at the same time to further the human service goals that have characterized People Temple for many years."

According to Temple Attorney Charles Garry, Jones leased 4,999 acres from the Guyana government, with an option for 17,000 more.

Temple literature describes Jonestown founders as a small group of pioneers who used sweat and determination to carve out of the jungle an agricultural project they expected in 1977 "become self sufficient in three to five years."

In the meantime, with funds supplied from the United States, they built houses, workshops, a sawmill, communal halls and schools at Jonestown. Most time was spent cultivating the crops, mainly, according to the literature, cassava, a potato-like root that is a South America staple. The literature says they grew "170 crops."

While recent visitors estimated the number of Jonestown residents at 700 to 900, one Temple publication put the number at 1,500 last year. In an interview yesterday Garry, who had described the community as "paradise" following visits in the past year, said that "several hundred" new arrivals had come to Jonestown in recent months.

Newsletters were sent to U.S. temple members, in much the same manner as Catholic and other Protestant Third World missions inform their members, telling about medical and senior citizen projects, special schools and community projects. None of those descriptions is disputed by local residents.

Reporters who survived the fatal congressional mission said that, before the massacre, they had been on balance favorable impressed with the community's facilities.

Rep. Leo Ryan (D-Calif.), the congressman who was killed there Saturday, reportedly told others in the group that, except for its isolation and other impediments that prevented those who wanted to from leaving, he was favorably impressed with the project.

There was little visible activity by the temple community in the small, sleepy capital of Georgetown, residents said.

"Sometimes they came in soliciting funds," one office worker said yesterday. They were always very quiet and nice.We thought they must be something like Quakers."

Another local resident said the temple people rarely spoke about religion to strangers.

Despite Guyana's socialism, churches and mosques pepper the city. "We are very religious people. We questioned them about the nature of their faith because we were curious," the local resident said, but they just smiled and talked about agriculture."

The temple also ran a twice-weekly radio program here that one person said concentrated mainly on "agricultural reports and praise of Jones" who is referred to in temple literature as "the bishop."

Jones moved fulltime to the Guyana community in spring of 1977, Garry said, and was helped in the administration of the farm by his adopted son John, a black in his mid-20s described in earlier news accounts as half-American Indian. John was short, somewhat overweight and usually wore light-sensitive glasses darkly tinted. He rarely came to Georgetown.

In the summer of 1977, not long after Jones arrived, unfavorable publicity alleging extortion of California temple members and physical punishment began to spread in the United States and quickly reached Guyana.

Local rumors - none of them confirmed, but all widely circulated here - told of trips by a converted fishing trawler owned by the community and ostensibly used to transport produce to Georgetown markets.

The boat, it was said here, often traveled several miles out to sea to meet a freighter and pick up goods that were transported back to Jonestown without government inspection or payment.

There was widespread speculation here - again not proven or even deeply investigated - that arms were being brought ashore.

The issue of weapons is a touchy one in Guyana, where gun permits allegedly are sometimes given out on the basis of politics. Supporters of Jagan's opposition party, who live primarily in rural areas, while Burham's arty stalwarts center in Georgetown, have charged that they have been denied permits for guns to defend their herds from predators while pro-Burnham farmers have no trouble.

Following a highly critical article in New West, a California magazine, Temple officials in San Francisco solicited leters to Burnham from prominent Californian's attesting to Jones' good character and the good works of the organization.

One letter, in October, 1977, came from Dymally, who spoke of a "politically motivated conspiracy" against "one of the most committed activists and finest human beings I know - Rev. Jim Jones."

Dymally, referring to campaigns against himself as a black politician, told Burnham that Jones was the "target of the most gruelling and vicious conspiracy yet . . . scurrillous lies." Money, he said, "is being spent by this conspiracy in an attempt to destabilize the agricultural project in Guyana and to apparently bring about the elimination of Rev. Jim Jones.

Garry, a well-known California activist attorney who was retained by the temple when the press attacks started, said Jones became increasingly paranoid. At one point last year, both Angela Davis and Huey Newton, another of Garry's clients, were enlisted to broadcast radio-telephone messages of support to Jonestown.

At the same time, Temple literature, both here and in California, began to concentrate more on the "conspiracy."

"The sources of these allegations," one "dear friend" letter from the temple said, "are racists, law violators and common terrorists who were upset with the church when we did not follow their advocated course of violence. We are certain that these people are being paid for their scurrilous actions in recent months."

"Contrary to any malicious allegations," the letter said, "we don't have corporal punishment of any kind and never have had."

Late last month Ryan, who had received letters from constituents asking for help against Jones and Peoples Temple, cabled Jones and came in a Nov. 6 letter from Mark Lane, an attorney and noted conspiracy.

"You should be informed," the letter said, "that various agencies of the U.S. government have somewhat consistently oppressed the Peoples Temple."

The reference was apparently to U.S. customs seizure and search of asked permission to visit. The answer goods being sent to Jonestown over the past year and what the temple said was an order by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, preventing the mailing of U.S. Social Security checks to temple members in Guyana.

"Some of the members of the People's Temple have had to flee from the U.S! in order to experience a fuller opportunity to enjoy rights which were not available to them within the U.S., Lane said.

"You should know that two different countries, neither one of which has entirely friendly relations with the U.S. have "offered" to Jonestown residents.

They walked out to the main road and on toward Port Kaituma, eventually being picked up by a Guyanese government truck that took them to the police station at Port Kaituma from where the government flew them back to Georgetown. Lane and Garry stayed here yesterday to be questioned by police. CAPTION: Picture 1, U.S. Air Force personnel and Guyana Fire Service members lift survivor of shooting from plane, AP; Picture 2, Charles Garry a lawyer for the cultists, shows how Rep. Ryan was threatened with a knife, Copyright (c) 1978, The Francisco Examiner; Picture 3, Group leaving Jonestown Saturday includes members of Ryan's investigative team and possibly some of the cultists who had decided to leave, Copyright (c) The San Francisco Examiner; Picture 4, Mark Lane . . . lawyer for cultists; Picture 5, Guyanese troops board aircraft at Georgetown on way to compound of U.S. Cultists at Jonestown to search the area and provide security, AP; Picture 6, Steve Sung . . . escaped with wound