After emotional Christmas services in a secret room in the Tehran area, most of the American hostages in Iran were reported to be in apparent good health and high spirits yesterday despite bleak prospects for their swift release from 418 days of captivity.
Christmas visits by three Christian Iranian clergymen and the papal nuncio to Iran, Msgr. Anibale Bugnini, failed, however, to provide a conclusive look at the condition of all 52 Americans in Iranian custody since Nov. 4, 1979, leaving doubts similiar to those that attended visits by American clergymen at Christmas a year ago.
In addition, the deputy speaker of the Iranian parliament renewed calls on the government to prepare to bring the Americans to trial after what he called delays in U.S. responses to Iranian conditions for their release.
Hojatoleslam Mohammand Moussavi Khoini, in an interview in the Tehran Times, said they should be tried according to Islamic principles rather than international law as defined by the West. His comment drew serves as a conduit between militant Islamic students, who seized the hostages, and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, patriarch of the Iranian revolution.
Hours after the meetings between the hostages and the clergy, Tehran radio again renewed the threat of spy trials unless the United States meets Iran's "final" terms.
Pars, the official Iranian news agency, said that all 49 of the Americans held in a secret location since this spring met with clergymen during the night and that the remaining three, held in the Foreign Ministry, received visits later on Christmas Day.
Bugnini, however, told correspondents in Tehran that he and his Iranian colleague held Roman Catholic services for only 25 to 30 hostages, in groups of six of seven allowed into a spare room with drawn drapes at a secret location, and then later saw the three at the ministry.
The remaining American hostages, he said, received visits in another building a the same secret spot from two English-speaking Iranian Protestant ministers who revealed nothing about the number or condition of the Americans they saw.
Of those he saw and talked with on what was his second Christmas visit to the hostages, Bugnini told Reuter: "Afterward, we gave them little gifts, some gathered in Tehran and some from the United States. Each got a package of winter clothes and a device for exercising the muscles. They joked with each other as they opened their presents."
In a later conversation with United Press International, the papal envoy said the hostages were "in good form, but not too lively, not too flourishing," adding: "Their morale was a little weaker than last year."
Yohannan Semaan Issavi, the Iranian archbishop of Tehran who was with Bugnini, told Associated Press that the hostages they saw appeared "physically and morally well." He added: "They feel very well, and most received communion. It was very nice and happy. The gave messages to their families."
The U.S. State Department, which charged this week that it believed some hostages were being mistreated, declined comment on the Christmas visits or on a film of the holiday services taken and distributed by Iranian television and shown in the United States by the major American networks.
The silent film showed two groups of a half-dozen men in a large room with a Chirstmas tree, candles and gift packages. Apparently well-fed and healthy, they smiled in a subdued way.
Dorothea Morefield, wife of Consul General Richard Morefield, told AP in San Diego, Calif., that she saw her husband in the film and that "he seems fine physically."
"It's reassuring," she added.
Bett Kirtley, the mother of hostage Steve Kirtley, said in Little Rock, Ark., that the glimpse she got of her son was a source of joy because "he looked good. He looked good and healthy."
Then she added in her talk with AP: "It was good to see him and all, but it's not like having him home."
The two women hostages -- Elizabeth Ann Swift, a political officer, and Katherine Koob, a cultural exchange official -- were seen separately in the five-minute sequence. Bugnini said the two had cried and laughed at the same time during his visit with them, expressing pride in Chistmas tree decorations they had made.
On the same occasion, about 45 hostages filmed individual Christmas messages that will be distributed to U.S. television Friday, according to officials at Iranian television.
CBS News reported an Iranian announcement that film of all 49 hostages at the secret location will be released today and footage of three hostages held at the Foreign Ministry will be released Saturday.
Although they failed, as had previous visits, to provide an exact accounting of the hostages' condition, the Christmas services indicated that the Iranian government of Prime Minister Mohammand Ali Rajai exercises some control over the hostages. A spokesman for Bugnini, reached in Tehran by telephone, said all arrangements had been made by Rajai's office and not by the militant Islamic students.
The students have announced that they are turning over custody of the hostages to the government, but so far there has been no firm indication that the turnover actually has taken place.
This is seen as a key point because in earlier dealings with the Iranian government, the United States has found its official interlocutors unable to deliver on promises rejected by the students. Although negotiations with Rajai's government are stalemated now, his role in arranging the visits indicates that he could have the hostages released if agreement were ever reached between Tehran and Washington.
Iranian authorities had previously announced that no foreign clergy would be allowed to visit the hostages, and no explanation was given for allowing Bugnini to be with them.
Bugnini's account of the Christmas services also indicated that, for Christmas at least, the hostages were in the Tehran area. According to news agencies, the nuncio said he met his Revolutionary Guard escorts at a church in the capital at 10 p.m. Tehran time (1:30 p.m. EST) and was driven in darkness for about 30 minutes to a secret spot that he refused to describe. Accounts differed as to whether he was blindfolded for the entire trip, or just between the car and the buildings where the saw the hostages. He refused to indicate what he had learned about the hostages' secret location. But given the Iranians' capital sprawl, it was unlikely that he could have left the Tehran area in a half-hour drive.
Iran's official radio said the services took place at the hostages' "place of residence," Reuter reported. It was unclear, however, whether this meant the Americans are kept in the Tehran area quartered in the same place all the time.