The Catholic Church today accused Zimbabwean Army troops of killing "hundreds and hundreds of innocent people" in "a reign of terror" in the southwestern part of the country.

The wide-ranging condemnation, issued as a pastoral letter by the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops' Conference, is the first public criticism of government and military actions by an independent organization since reports of Army atrocities began filtering out of Matabeleland two months ago.

Until now, church and nongovernment relief organizations with representatives in the embattled area had submitted detailed reports to the government complaining about Army brutality against civilians, but they had declined to go public in hopes that corrective action might be taken quietly. Privately, they have estimated that more than 1,000 civilians have been killed in an Army offensive against robberies and economic sabotage.

The pastoral letter, to be made public in Catholic churches over Easter week, said, "violent reaction against dissident activity has, to our certain knowledge, brought about the maiming and death of hundreds and hundreds of innocent people who are neither dissidents nor collaborators.

"We are convinced by incontrovertible evidence that many wanton atrocities and brutalities have been and are still being perpetrated. We have already forwarded such evidence to government," the statement said.

The document, signed by the country's seven bishops, criticized widespread killings by the dissidents who the government says are loyal to self-exiled opposition leader Joshua Nkomo. The bishops also defended the government's right to use military means to maintain law and order.

They added, however, that "methods which should be firm and just have degenerated into brutality and atrocity."

Prime Minister Robert Mugabe and other senior government officials have repeatedly denied the allegations, saying the Army has only killed dissidents, with the possible exception of a few innocent persons "caught in cross fire."

Officials have criticized the numerous foreign press reports of atrocities as sensationalism and accused the press and nongovernmental organizations of working for Nkomo's opposition party, the Zimbabwe African People's Union.

In a speech to a rally Saturday in which he threatened action against ZAPU, Mugabe said the foreign press and nongovernmental organizations can say what they want, "but we will not deviate from the course we have chosen to defend our country."

In such an atmosphere, the church's pastoral letter is bound to cause fireworks but is unlikely to cause any public retreat by the government. An official said he thought the statement would not change the situation.

A prelate, however, said he hoped the letter "might do some good" in ending the killings.

Mugabe met yesterday with representatives of the bishops, four of whom are black, and was informed about the impending publication of the pastoral letter, a church official said. Members of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace said today they were "heartened" by the meeting in which the prime minister reiterated that alleged atrocities would be investigated.

The church statement attacked leading officials and the government-controlled press as well as the Army.

Criticizing harsh attacks by senior Cabinet ministers on Nkomo and his party, the bishops said, "what we view with concern are the many occasions on which certain influential people have inflamed the situation by their words, instead of seeking to pacify it.

"Quite a number of public utterances made by not a few public figures seek to hide the atrocities that have taken place.

"In all this the mass media have singularly failed to keep the people of Zimbabwe properly informed of the facts which are common knowledge," they said.

"The facts point to a reign of terror caused by wanton killings, woundings, beatings, burnings and rapings. Many homes have been burned down. People in rural areas are starving, not only because of the drought, but because in some cases supplies of food have been deliberately cut off and in other cases access to food supplies has been restricted or stopped," they added.

The security forces give "the impression that they are above and outside the law," the bishops said and added with foreboding, "One thing is certain: violence such as that being perpetrated by a certain group of the Army breeds bitterness, feelings of hatred and desire for revenge, which may lead to more violence in the future."

The letter concluded with an appeal to the government to end the "excesses" and establish a judicial commission to investigate, apportion blame and distribute compensation.

The church presented similar pastoral letters criticizing atrocities during the white-minority government of former prime minister Ian Smith. A bishop and several priests were expelled from the country under Smith's government.

About one-seventh of the country's 7.5 million population is Catholic, making Catholicism the largest single Christian denomination in Zimbabwe.

Today's criticism must hit a sensitive nerve for Mugabe, since the church's leading role as a human rights critic of the Smith government helped to balance the record in the seven-year independence war during which his guerrillas were accused of numerous atrocities.

Mugabe, a Marxist, was baptized and raised Catholic. An intensely private person, he apparently is no longer a regularly practicing Catholic, but it is known that he occasionally attends mass. One of his sisters is a lay worker at a Catholic mission.