MANAGUA, NICARAGUA, FEB. 14 -- Evangelist Jimmy Swaggart closed a three-day crusade here today that drew big crowds and avoided controversy with either the Catholic Church or the leftist Sandinista government.
A political conservative and self-proclaimed "televangelist," Swaggart held crusades attended by tens of thousands of Nicaraguans starting Friday in the Plaza of the Revolution here. He received red-carpet treatment throughout his stay, including a session Thursday night with President Daniel Ortega.
Swaggart is the first prominent American evangelist to be permitted to preach here in recent years and only the second non-Sandinista to hold a rally in the Plaza of the Revolution -- which is sacred Sandinista ground. The first was Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who said mass there Jan. 1.
The crowd at the closing rally today had grown to 40,000. Swaggart's crusades are often publicly criticized by the Roman Catholic Church, which perceives him as anti-Catholic and resents evangelicals' attempts to convert Catholics. Church representatives made no such declamations during Swaggart's visit to this predominantly Catholic country.
Church officials said Managua allowed the preacher to speak as part of a campaign to decrease the power of the Catholic Church. Obando y Bravo, a mediator between the government and the Nicaraguan rebels known as contras, is the most prominent internal critic of the government.
Swaggart is on a tour through the region, generating film for his television network, which he says reaches 140 countries.
"The Catholic Church is the strongest proponent of human rights in Nicaragua," said Bishop Bosco Vivas in an interview. Inviting Swaggart here "could be one method to hurt the church."
Vivas said former dictator Anastasio Somoza also promoted Protestant religions to lessen the power of a Catholic Church critical of his human rights record.
Sandinista officials say, however, that Swaggart's visit has more to do with religious freedom in Nicaragua than with offending Catholics.
"It shows there is complete religious freedom here," said a press spokeswoman, requesting anonymity.
Swaggart has carefully avoided politics during his rallies.
"We have not come here to involve ourselves in your politics," Swaggart said, speaking Friday in front of the ruins of Managua's main cathedral, destroyed by an earthquake in 1972. Huge portraits of Carlos Fonseca and Augusto Cesar Sandino, the principal heroes of the Sandinistas, stared down at Swaggart's stage. "We have only come here to lift up Jesus Christ."
Regarding Nicaragua's civil war, Swaggart said: "Half the world blames the Sandinistas, but the fault is not with the Sandinistas. Half the world blames the contras, but the fault is not with the contras. Satan is at fault. Satan is the cause of the problems here."
During the Thursday meeting with Ortega, the usually serious president was all smiles. He complimented Swaggart on his television show and accepted an English-language Bible from the evangelist.
The government-controlled press has given prominent display to Swaggart's revivals. His crusade has been played live over several radio stations.
Swaggart's shows are translated into Spanish by a preacher who stands on the stage with him and mirrors his movements. The crowds have grown larger each night.
Swaggart did venture into public politics at least once. Meeting with Ortega Thursday, he jokingly introduced one of his many cameramen as someone who once accidentally hit President Reagan on the head with his camera. When Ortega didn't respond, Swaggart said, "I thought you'd like that."