LOS PLANES DE VILAN, NICARAGUA -- When elements of a Sandinista counterinsurgency battalion arrived here on patrol two years ago, the commander walked into the dirt-floored kitchen of a peasant woman named Maria and saw the words "Jehova Jesus" written on a wall.

"He asked me if there were cults around here," Maria recalled. "Then he told me that there is no God. I had a Bible on the table, and he told me he had seen Bibles in the knapsacks of many dead guardias {Nicaraguan rebels}. He told me those Bibles were nothing but a business deal of Reagan's."

The comments did not go over well with Maria, who is a member of one of the fundamentalist Christian sects that thrive in the mountains of Jinotega province in northern Nicaragua -- an area of sparse population known to be supportive of the rebels.

She is also part of the support network of the Nicaraguan rebels, who are generally known as contras but who also are commonly referred to as "commandos" by their backers here and disparaged as remnants of the pre-1979 National Guard, or guardias, by the Sandinistas.

Interviews with Maria and more than two dozen other peasants during a two-day trip arranged by the contra leadership last week suggested that, beyond the cases of harassment and abuse often cited as reasons for opposing the Sandinistas, fundamental religious convictions often are at the root of that opposition. Despite disclaimers by the government and the presence of priests in the Cabinet, conservative peasants like Maria take it for granted that the Sandinistas are essentially communist and atheist in character.

Contra fighters interviewed expressed deep distrust of the Managua government and rejected its amnesty program and limited unilateral cease-fire. But they said they would obey the decisions of their exiled leaders on an amnesty and cease-fire that resulted from negotiations with the Sandinistas. After repeatedly rejecting the idea, the Sandinistas last week agreed to indirect cease-fire talks with the contras.

The trip also indicated that, despite evidence of strong popular support in this area and incipient efforts to develop a political base, the contras are still a long way from overcoming one of their primary long-term limitations: dependency on U.S. aid.

Maria and a number of other peasants of fundamentalist sects said they had relatives who were contras. Many of the 20 contras who accompanied a group of reporters wore crucifixes and sometimes talked of their struggle in religious terms.

A 21-year-old contra codenamed Condor said, "I have seen a lot of combat but we've had few killed, because our struggle is just and our Lord helps us." Condor, who comes from a farming family in this area, has two brothers in the same unit.

One of the contras' top field commanders in another region, Antonio Chavarria Rodriguez, is a former evangelical pastor. Another evangelical pastor turned contra commander Diogenes Membreno Hernandez, is one of five members of a contra team charged with negotiating a cease-fire with the Sandinistas.

A few adherents of fundamentalist faiths encountered on the trip professed strict neutrality in the country's civil war and said they refused to carry arms for either side.

Juan Francisco Altamirano, 28, a preacher's assistant, said he had felt "no religious oppression" from the Sandinistas. Holding a Bible as he paused en route to a church member's birthday party, he added, however, "People are more afraid of the Sandinistas. Most peasants are poor and humble people, and most contras are peasants just like them. The people here are more sympathetic to the contras."

Maria, wearing a torn green dress and looking older than her 36 years, said her problems with the Sandinistas began around 1982, when security forces arrested two boys from her hamlet, and hauled them off to prison as contra supporters. Her husband then joined the contras "because he thought that any day the Sandinistas could come and take him away at night," Maria said.

In 1983, she said, three men suspected of helping the rebels were seized from their homes at night and killed. She said two were stabbed to death and one was thrown off a cliff. In August 1985, Maria said, the eldest of her nine children died at age 17 while fighting for the contras about two hours' walk from here.

The day that the Sandinista commander told her there was no God, she said, his unit painted a huge star and Sandinista slogans on her wooden shack. The work was signed by the 2nd Company of an Irregular Warfare Battalion.

Such slogans notwithstanding, Maria said, "Here everyone supports the commandos."

According to the contras' regional commander here, Oscar Manuel Sobalvarro Garcia, alias Ruben, "If we didn't have the support of the people, we wouldn't be fighting. They give us food, they give us information, they care for our wounded, and sometimes they even fight for us."

Ruben, 26, said he and 14 friends from his hometown of San Jose de Bocay in northern Jinotega began fighting the Sandinistas in 1980 with hunting rifles "because we feared they were trying to install communism." He said he joined the fight after Sandinista state security agents arrested and summarily shot two local peasants, Justino Cano and Augusto Torres, suspected of opposing the regime.

"They were killing defenseless people, confiscating land and accusing people of being Somocistas," Ruben said, using the term for followers of the late dictator Anastasio Somoza. He said that of his original group of 15, at least four have been killed, including Salvador Perez, for whom his regional command is named.

Now, instead of a hunting rifle, Ruben carries a Soviet-designed AK47 assault rifle, a Smith and Wesson officer's pistol, two American-made grenades and a Japanese-made walkie-talkie -- all supplied by the United States.

Ruben acknowledged that his unit depends on supplies dropped by air as part of a $100 million U.S. contra aid package. Besides munitions and items unobtainable locally, such as camouflaged uniforms and jungle combat boots, the night flights also drop large bundles of Nicaraguan currency, which the contras use to buy food from campesinos. With inflation around 1,000 percent, the contras require a lot of cordoba notes, which are a burden to carry.

Indeed, in terms of independent income, the contras are still a guerrilla force with no visible means of support. Unlike, for example, an 18-year communist insurgency in the Philippines, which taxes individuals and businesses in areas it controls, the contras give no indication of having developed funding sources with which to continue their fight if U.S. aid is cut off.

Nor does the political organizing work recently begun by the contras in this area -- years too late, in the view of some western analysts -- approach the level of organization achieved by the Marxist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front in El Salvador.

Nevertheless, the contras appear to have made some progress here in laying down a support network. One of several civilians interviewed who are members of it said he now harbors five wounded contra fighters at his house. "This is my way of fighting for peace," said the civilian, who has two brothers in the contras. He said he was a fighter himself until two years ago, but that his work now "is just as important."

A farmer, who said his sons have repeatedly been targets of forcible recruiting by the Sandinistas, declared: "We don't want arms in our hands, but we are here to help the commandos. We want a democratic government."

"When the Sandinistas come, we give them food, but out of fear," said a 15-year-old girl named Clara. "We give to the contras because we want to." She said a brother was recruited by the Sandinista Army last year and that her father has been in jail for 13 months as a contra collaborator.