A federal jury today convicted eight Christian activists of helping smuggle or harbor illegal immigrants and gave U.S. immigration officials at least a partial victory in their effort to stymie a growing national movement to provide sanctuary for Central American refugees.

The convicted Sanctuary Movement members included two Roman Catholic priests, a nun and a Presbyterian minister, who sat with the other defendants and methodically checked off the verdicts on sheets of paper as the court clerk read the jury's findings.

Later, several of the women among the defendants broke into tears outside the courtroom and vowed to appeal.

The verdicts climaxed 48 hours of deliberations over nine days after a trial that began Oct. 22. The appeals process could last at least two years.

Two church lay workers and a Quaker rancher instrumental in organizing the movement were found not guilty on all charges. The jury returned guilty verdicts on 18 of 40 possible counts of conspiracy, illegal smuggling, transporting and harboring.

Referring to thousands of Americans who have supported Sanctuary programs in more than 240 churches and some cities nationwide, Assistant U.S. Attorney Donald Reno said:

"I think this jury's verdict is going to have a significant impact on those persons who were well-intentioned but misguided. Twelve fellow citizens have concluded that these were felonious acts."

At an emotion-filled news conference, Reno decried what he said was distorted media coverage of the trial and what he characterized as "unusually close personal relationships" among reporters, defendants and the defendants' supporters.

In answer to critics who said the government was wasting money trying to convict Christian leaders intent only on helping refugees escape political persecution, Reno said:

"What was the U.S. government supposed to do? . . . Was it supposed to look the other way . . . while illegal acts were being committed . . . even in front of cameras like we have here today?"

Each guilty verdict could bring a maximum jail sentence of five years, attorneys said. Reno would not say what he would recommend for sentencing, scheduled July 1.

All eight defendants remain free pending sentencing, and many of the 11 had scheduled speaking engagements throughout the country regardless of the verdict.

Reno said the two convicted defendants who are Mexican citizens may avoid any penalty by returning to Mexico and staying there. They are the Rev. Ramon Dagoberto Quinones, 50, a parish priest, and Maria del Socorro Pardo Viuda de Aguilar, 58, a lay worker.

As the verdict was being read inside the ground-floor courtroom of the small federal court building in this city 55 miles north of the Mexican border, about 100 Sanctuary supporters waited quietly on the sidewalk. Two carried a quilted banner reading, "The truth will set you free."

They erupted into loud applause when the most visible Tucson movement leader, the Rev. John M. Fife, 46, walked out the door with his wife, who appeared to be upset, and one of their two sons.

Fife's Southside Presbyterian Church, a small stucco building surrounded by weeds in a low-income neighborhood, has often been described as the birthplace of the national Sanctuary Movement.

Fife, found guilty of conspiracy and two counts of transporting illegal immigrants, called the verdict "just the first stage in a long judicial process." He said jurors were not "allowed to hear the whole truth" because of rulings by U.S. District Court Judge Earl H. Carroll barring testimony on the defendants' religious and political motives.

Reno indicated disappointment at not winning a guilty verdict against Quaker activist Jim Corbett but said the judge's rulings kept crucial evidence out of the trial. He said he was not allowed to show the jury newspaper photos of Corbett helping a refugee cross a border fence because the judge ruled that federal agents had not tried hard enough to produce her as a witness.

Also acquitted were Nena MacDonald, 38, of Lubbock, Tex., and Mary K. Doan Espinoza, 31, of Nogales, Ariz. The others convicted were Sister Darlene Nicgorski, 42, of Phoenix; the Rev. Anthony Clark, 37, of Nogales, Ariz.; Philip Willis-Conger, 27, of Tucson; Margaret Hutchison, 31, a graduate student at the University of Arizona, and Wendy LeWin, 26, of Tucson.

Electrical worker David McCrea, 26, one of three men on the jury, said tonight "I had sympathy for the defendants but we had to follow the law." He said he wished the defense had put on its own case, rather than simply argue that the government had not proved the charges.

Defense attorney James Brosnahan said he is confident the convictions will be overturned and that the defendants will be allowed to remain free until then. "This is a tough night for everybody here," he said, "but there will come a time when the people of this country will realize what these defendants did for them."