Pontiff Lectures Ortega in Chilly Vatican Meeting

Times Staff Writer

President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua went to the Vatican on a bridge-building mission Friday, but Pope John Paul II received him with a perfunctory handshake and a lecture on human rights and democracy.

Ortega and the Pope both expressed hope for peace in Central America, but it was clear that they do not have a common concept of democracy.

"The Pope's attitude was 'Let's get down to business,' " a Vatican official said of the leaders' half-hour conversation. "He did most of the talking."

The usual courtesies--an honor guard of 15 Swiss Guards and a red carpet--were extended for Ortega, but the protocol scarcely masked the longstanding hostility between the Vatican and the Sandinista government.

In 1983, the pontiff left Managua in a rage at the end of a visit marred by an Ortega speech against the United States and organized disruption of an outdoor papal Mass by government supporters. Church-state relations in Nicaragua were tense even before the papal visit, and since then, the government and church have dueled continually amid mutual suspicions that neither takes much trouble to hide.

Ortega is on a European journey aimed at persuading governments to oppose new U.S. aid for the Contras. At the Vatican, he seemed to be ready to let bygones be bygones. He refused, at a press conference, to rise to repeated questions about his lukewarm welcome, at one point chiding a reporter for "trying to give five legs to a cat that has only four."

Friday morning, in a Vatican reception room, the Pope greeted Ortega with a stiff smile and a curt, " Buenos dias. " Then he spun on his heel and stalked into his private library, leaving Ortega to follow for their private talk.

Unusual Remarks

Afterward, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro issued an unusual commentary on the meeting.

He said that Ortega had asked for Vatican encouragement of the search for peace. The pontiff, Navarro said, expressed his support for peace efforts directed by Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.

"The Pope, in particular, stressed the right of people to live in a political regime according to the rights of democratic principles," Navarro said.

After the meeting with Ortega, John Paul was less distant in greeting the Nicaraguan party accompanying Ortega, including his wife, Rosario, in a black mantilla.

"The Holy Father had said what was on his mind," said a Vatican official close to the Pope.

Painting for Pontiff

John Paul distributed religious medals, blessed rosaries brought by Rosario Ortega, and accepted a primitive landscape painting that Ortega offered "with all the love of the Nicaraguan campesinos. "

"I am grateful for your gift as an expression of the originality of all your people," the Pope said.

As the Nicaraguan leader was leaving, John Paul expressed his wishes for "peace for all Nicaraguans," again emphasizing the "all."

"I believe we must make peace," Ortega told him.

At the press conference, Ortega called the encounter "very frank and constructive," asserting that religious freedom had returned to Nicaragua under terms of a Central American peace initiative.

Exiled Priests Return

The Ortega government has allowed the return of some exiled priests and has allowed a church radio station in Managua to resume broadcasting. Vatican officials, though, were more interested in talking about the "mysterious disappearance" at Managua airport two weeks ago of newly arrived technical equipment needed to allow the station to transmit effectively.

"What brought me here to talk was the search for peace and democracy in Central America," Ortega said. "We won't let peace efforts fail even though the United States is trying to kill them. The Pope is fully supporting the peace plan."

After his meeting with the pontiff, Ortega had talks with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state, and Archbishop Achille Silvestrini, the Vatican "foreign minister."

D'Escoto Not Present

Conspicuous by his absence at the Vatican was the Nicaraguan foreign minister, Miguel D'Escoto, one of three Catholic priests who are members of Ortega's Cabinet. They have been ordered by the Vatican to suspend their ecclesiastical functions because of their political activism.

Ortega, who arrived from Madrid on Thursday and leaves today for Norway, said he had received pledges of support for peace from the Spanish and Italian governments.

Well received by the Italian left, which plans a pro-Nicaragua demonstration at a downtown plaza today, Ortega conferred Friday with leaders of the Italian Communist Party, as well as with Christian Democratic Prime Minister Giovanni Goria and other government officials.

Whatever the Nicaraguans may have thought privately of their Vatican reception, it came as no surprise to Italian leftists, who long ago learned to be wary of the Polish Pope.

Anticipating the chill, an editorial Friday in the Communist newspaper Il Manifesto warned Ortega that he could hardly expect to be well received by a Pope who "did not find it repugnant to bless (Chilean President Augusto) Pinochet but found it impossible in Managua to bless the bodies of youths killed in terrorist Contra attacks."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World