"We have a situation in our country where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer," said the government opponent. "Something must be wrong with the system, and we have to fight that system. In the case of the Philippines, you can't change it by peaceful means."

"The major problem is economic, and communism offers an alternative," said another critic. "There is a lot of exploitation and abuse" by military and government authorities, "and these people have to be eliminated."

The speakers were not guerrillas fighting to overthrow the government of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, but two Roman Catholic nuns.

Their remarks help illustrate a rift between church and state in the Philippines, the only Christian country in Asia. It is a rift that appears to be growing as the government cracks down on what it calls "rebel priests."

According to church officials here, the problem is becoming as serious as in Latin America, where many activist Roman Catholic clerics practicing a "theology of liberation" are in the forefront of struggles against rightist or military governments.

So far, according to the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines, an activist church group, the military has arrested more than 40 priests, nuns and lay workers in what the group calls a campaign of "harassment and intimidation" against the church.

The government denies targeting the church but has indicated it is no longer prepared, as one western diplomat put it, "to sit back and allow rebel priests to use their crosses and collars as shields."

The Defense Ministry says 11 priests and nuns have been arrested for subversive activities in the past year and a half, including one Australian and two Dutch priests. Three Filipino priests are still in detention. A number of others are being sought for allegedly taking up arms and joining the communist New People's Army guerrillas, who have been waging a steadily expanding insurgency in various parts of the archipelago.

Among these rebel clerics, the Defense Ministry says, is the Rev. Conrado Balweg, a parish priest and high school principal from Abra Province. In October the ministry identified him as the leader of a New People's Army unit that killed seven government troops in a September 1980 attack.

After the priest was shown in a British Broadcasting Corp. documentary wearing fatigues and brandishing an M16 rifle, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile approved rewards of 130,000 pesos ($15,000) each for the capture dead or alive of Balweg and another priest, the Rev. Zacarias Agatep, who was accused of procuring weapons and ammunition for guerrillas. A day after the rewards were announced, Agatep was killed in what authorities described as a shoot-out with government troops in Ilocos Sur Province. Also reported slain in the clash was a local communist guerrilla leader.

Two weeks ago, the military stepped up efforts to capture Balweg after he and another renegade priest, the Rev. Bruno Ortega, were identified as the planners of a Jan. 9 attack on a police constabulary base by about 60 New People's Army guerrillas. A local militiaman was killed and a police sergeant was kidnaped and publicly murdered.

Among the priests currently in custody is the Rev. Edicio de la Torre, who was arrested in Quezon City last April on subversion charges under a presidential commitment order. In a decree last March, Marcos proclaimed the right to issue such orders to arrest and detain suspected subversives indefinitely without bail or recourse to the courts.

Authorities seized on the reported confession of one priest, the Rev. Edgardo Kangelon, 29, who was arrested at a church social action center in October, to charge that a number of Catholic organizations had been infiltrated by communist rebels.

In response, 15 members of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines last month urged the 100 bishops of the Philippine church to take a tougher stand against human rights violations by government forces.

"The military claimed repeatedly that the problem is only with a few individuals, but it is obvious that the church, as a voice for the voiceless and as a defender of the victims of violence and poverty, has become a threat for the established order," the group said in a letter to the convention of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines.

The letter predicted that opposition to the government would grow and that to stifle it, the military would continue to "terrorize" people to dissuade them from supporting the rebels.

According to western diplomats, the semiannual conference produced the bishops' strongest criticism yet of the Marcos government's policies. "More than the usual number of bishops subscribed to a radical criticism of militarization," a term used here to mean killings, abductions and various abuses by the military in its campaign to limit popular support for the insurgents, one diplomat said. The bishops also decided to end a dialogue with the military this month.

At the convention, the bishops also approved a pastoral letter to be read this Sunday in all churches in the Philippines. In a move to bypass the government-controlled press and take their message directly to the faithful, the bishops blamed the government for the worsening poverty and resulting social conflicts and condemned the "torture and murder" of dissidents.

The letter was the first time the Catholic bishops as a group had made such strong charges. Pledging to work through peaceful means and disassociating themselves from the militant clergy supporting the insurgents, the bishops ask that the dissident clergy receive due process and not be tortured or maltreated.

The bishops cite "the issues of poverty and development, and the issue of dissent from unjust laws and from policies and practices of government." These, the bishops say, have led to support for the insurgents, and only genuine remedies can restore people's faith in the government.

Despite the sharpness of the pastoral letter and other clerical statements, most Philippine church officials remain staunchly conservative and supportive of Marcos, or middle-of-the-road in their desire to distance themselves from both the government and the communist rebels. Western diplomats and church sources estimate that perhaps 25 percent of the 14,000 Philippine priests and nuns tend to side with the opposition. Of those, they say, it is not known how many can be called sympathizers or supporters of the insurgents, but less than 20 are thought to be actually fighting alongside the rebels.

Still, even church leaders who are considered moderates, such as the archbishop of Manila, Cardinal Jaime L. Sin, tend to rationalize the activities of the rebel priests.

"If it is true" that some priests are fighting alongside the communists, he said in an interview, "why is it they went as far as that? Maybe the abuses are such that the priests have no more alternative."

For the more militant priests and nuns who clearly sympathize with the New People's Army, however, the rebellion is the only way to right the injustices and inequalities they see afflicting the poor.