SAN SALVADOR, DEC. 13 -- The leader of El Salvador's Roman Catholic Church called today for a Christmas truce in the nation's civil war and revealed that he received a telephoned death threat last week.

"The Salvadoran people hope that during this Christmas season the actions of war cease so we can continue to hope for a rational end to the conflict," Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, leader of the nation's 4.5 million Catholics, said in his televised homily at the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Human rights groups estimate that 61,000 people have died in the violence of the 8-year-old civil war.

"The people hope for a truce in order to be able to celebrate the birth of the Savior in peace and without mourning," he said. "I understand it is not easy for the sides in conflict to grant this legitimate wish of the people, but we should seek creative ways of ensuring an effective truce."

The archbishop has served as intermediary between the government and Marxist-led insurgents during three fruitless rounds of peace talks and has pressed for Christmas truces in the past. His calls for a similar truce last year went unheeded, and two years ago a cease-fire was reached but quickly broke down.

Rivera y Damas said the death threat was made in an anonymous call to one of his relatives and was related to his pushing for a controversial series of reforms on government financing of Catholic schools.

The threat came a day after unknown gunmen shot and killed Rene Joaquin Cardenas, eastern regional director of the government's Human Rights Commission, and amid fears that death squad activity is on the rise.

"I do not usually refer to personal matters, but I feel obligated to communicate . . . that a relative received an anonymous telephone call threatening my life," Rivera y Damas said. "I do not want this to be used politically, but I think it is necessary to make it public from this pulpit where so often we have defended the right to life."

His predecessor, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, an outspoken critic of human rights abuses by the military, was killed by a right-wing death squad in 1980.

In a brief interview after the mass, Rivera y Damas said he did not want to speculate on who made the threat. "What is important is the seriousness of the problem, and the church will remain firm despite the difficulties," he said. "Of course, we will ask for an investigation, because if they do this with the archbishop, what won't they do with people in a weaker position?

"If we are working for democracy, we must respect the right of others to think differently and not try to force them to accept our positions based on threats and blackmail."