Antigovernment guerrillas struck at Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeri's hopes for economic development last week with an attack on the oil town of Bentiu. Underscoring their challenge to Khartoum's control, the rebels kidnaped three priests, including an American, church officials said today.

Bentiu has been a trouble spot since the revival last year of a rebellion by members of the non-Moslem southern minority of Sudan against the Moslems in the north, who dominate the government.

Foreign experts central to the government's development projects have left as the region has become increasingly unstable over the past year. The kidnaped priests were described as among the last foreigners in the area. A western diplomat here said the question of security in Bentiu was "confused" at best.

Crucial oil-exploration efforts by the Chevron company were brought to an abrupt halt following a guerrilla raid on the company's headquarters in Bentiu in February that left three foreign workers dead and seven wounded. Through development of the area's reserves, this impoverished country was to begin production of oil next year.

The priests were captured Sept. 4, but a radio message only reached the church officials here today. The report gave only the names and nationalities of the priests and attributed the kidnaping to "guerrillas."

The American priest was identified as the Rev. Peter Curtin Major, who was working at an orphanage. The U.S. Embassy, which was informed of the kidnaping by church officials, declined to give out any information on Major pending notification of his next of kin.

The two other priests captured were the Revs. John Ashworth, a British subject who, like Major, belonged to the Midhill order, and Zakariah Chatin, a Sudanese who was the diocesan priest of Bentiu.

The Sudanese government had no immediate comment on the attack nor any further details. Archbishop Gabriel Wako of Khartoum, who confirmed the kidnaping today, said, "We don't know who did it."

The leading southern guerrilla group, the Sudan People's Liberation Army, attacked the Chevron compound in Bentiu in February. One dispute between southerners and the government concerns distribution of profits from the oil in the south. The southerners fear the government will not plow back the profits into development that would benefit the south.

The south has also opposed government plans to pipe the oil from southern wells to northern Port Sudan. The Bentiu raid and an earlier kidnaping of five foreign workers from a French construction company working on a Nile River water-diversion project have led the U.S. and several European governments to recommend that their nationals in the area abandon it.

U.S. officials said virtually all Americans have quit the provinces except for some missionaries, such as Major, who had refused to abandon their missions. According to the embassy, Major is the first American to be kidnaped in the south.

The southern rebellion is a revival of a 17-year civil war that came to an end in 1972, when Nimeri agreed to grant autonomy to Sudan's three African provinces. The accord, signed in the neighboring Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, sought to appease longstanding complaints that the approximately 5 million people in the south were being exploited by the 15 million in the Arabized, Moslem north.

The Addis accords unified the three southern provinces into one autonomous region, established a regional assembly and executive council to rule it, promised greater economic development and a more equitable distribution of state income, provided for the integration of the southern guerrilla movement, then known as the Anyanya, into the Sudanese Army and limited the administrative and military role of northerners in the south.

While some old Anyanya guerrillas never reconciled themselves to the Addis accords and sporadically turned up as Anyanya II, the 1972 agreement by and large brought peace for more than a decade and gave Sudan a chance to redirect its energy and meager resources toward economic development of this largest African nation.

But Nimeri's increasing reliance for political support on the right-wing Moslem Brotherhood and other Moslem fundamentalist groups in the north has increasingly led to new southern suspicions as Khartoum has unilaterally altered the Addis accords.

The first major sign that southern alienation was again leading to civil war came in May 1983, when a southern Army battalion based in the Upper Nile town of Bor mutinied against orders that would have replaced it with northerners.

When the Army attacked the Bor garrison, the battalion resisted, then retired to join the guerrillas. An ex-commander, Col. John Garang, a respected officer with a doctorate in economics from Iowa State University, also defected. He is a member of the Dinka tribe which is dominant in the south.

Garang quickly took charge of the guerrillas, forming them into the Sudan People's Liberation Army. Some western intelligence reports indicate that the group may have close to 10,000 men.

The rebels, according to western intelligence reports, have supplanted Anyanya II, although small groups of that older band as well as others still operate.

From bases in southern Sudanese refugee camps just inside Marxist Ethiopia, Garang's guerrillas have been concentrating on organizing an infrastructure and training thousands of recruits, according to western intelligence sources.

Their raids have been limited to attacks on small Army garrisons near the Ethiopian border, ambushes of river boats ferrying Army reinforcements to the garrisons along the Nile and its tributaries and attacks on foreign establishments, such as the one in Bentiu, to gain international attention and press the Nimeri government.

Nimeri's policies since the Bor rebellion have reinforced southern resistance and sent new young recruits into the bush to join Garang's forces. "What is going on is serious, no matter how much the government is trying to downplay it," said a Dinka professor at the University of Khartoum. "When you hear from your village about how many cousins here, or schoolboys there have suddenly disappeared from home, you know something big is happening."

Shortly after the Bor rebellion, Nimeri further antagonized the south by capitalizing on tribal tensions within its regional government to cancel the 1972 consolidation of the three African provinces. The act, which originally had been motivated by concerns of smaller tribes that they were being dominated by the Dinka plurality, had the effect of diluting the south's single-voice autonomy as established in the Addis accords.

That act was followed in a matter of months by an even more upsetting event for southerners: the president's institution of Islamic sharia law as the law of the land, to apply to southern Christians and animists as well as to northern Moslems.

For southerners suddenly to be subjected to Islamic law, with its punishments of limb amputations for thievery and public floggings for lesser crimes, was taken as confirmation that Nimeri had torn up the Addis accords.

"How can we in the south ever trust Nimeri again after this?" asked a southern civil servant working in Khartoum.

Voices are being raised in favor of the creation of a Nile republic, an old southern dream that Chevron's discovery of oil revived.

"I sincerely hope we can remain a part of the Sudan," said a Dinka intellectual, "but if we are not allowed to preserve our wealth, our culture, our religion, we have no other choice but try to form our own separate nation."