Associated Press

February 6, 1996

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) -- Directly confronting the challenge to his church's traditional dominance in Central America,

Pope John Paul II accused Protestant missionaries Tuesday of sowing "confusion and uncertainty" among Roman Catholics.

On his first visit to Central America in 13 years, the pope devoted the second day of his stop in Guatemala to a series of reminders that the region has been [Roman] Catholic for centuries, and that many have given up their lives for the church.

Protestant evangelical churches in Central America have surged in membership in recent years, worrying [Roman] Catholic leaders.

About 30 percent of Guatemala's 10.7 million people now identify themselves as Protestants -- the largest percentage of non-Catholics in any Central American country.

The poor and Indians may be most prone to stray, and in need of guidance from [Roman] Catholic clergy, the pope said in an evening prayer service in a Guatemala City park.

He said they were the most affected by the

Security broke down momentarily as the popemobile arrived behind the altar for the Tuesday evening Mass in Guatemala City. Scores of euphoric Guatemalans broke through police lines to rush towards the pontiff as he stepped out of the vehicle.

As the papal entourage walked up the steps of the outdoor altar, people in the 100,000-strong crowd even knocked against the pope's chief bodyguard while others pounded on the windows of the popemobile itself.

Following the Mass, the pontiff hugged young Indian boys and girls and blessed other Indians who mounted the altar. One man held a sheep and a couple carried a basket with a newborn baby in it. Others brought native plants and tropical flowers to be blessed. The pope displayed one of his brightest smiles of the day as he met with the handful of worshipers.

John Paul began his day by following the path of Catholic pilgrims, traveling to Esquipulas and visiting the basilica of the Black Christ, a 400-year-old wooden icon said to work miraculous healings. It attracted 1.2 million visitors last year.

But he cut short his visit there by nearly three hours and returned to Guatemala City. Rain and fog that earlier delayed landing of the Vatican press corps plane for two hours was closing in, and could have blocked the pope from leaving if he waited any longer, officials said.

The change in travel plans had nothing to do with the 75-year-old pope's health, which was excellent, Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro said. The foreign trip is John Paul's first since being bedridden by the flu at Christmas.

Pilgrims walked for days from neighboring Honduras and El Salvador to see the pope at Esquipulas. Indians made up much of the crowd of 30,000 at an open air mass, many of them wearing wool capes and straw hats.

The pope suggested that a peace process begun in Esquipulas -- the scene of 1986 peace accords that helped end civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador -- was yet unfinished.

Although mildly phrased, the pontiff's statement could exert substantial force on both sides in the civil war between the Guatemalan government and poverty-stricken Indians.

An ocean away, the two sides to Guatemala's 35-year conflict quietly met in Oslo, Norway, in a renewed effort to nudge along negotiations that have been stalled since last year.

But the papal visit got most of the attention in Esquipulas.

"Long live Pope John Paul II," Indians shouted amid a sea of yellow-and-white flags -- the Vatican colors. Hundreds ran behind his popemobile as it paraded on a grassy field called the Valley of Maria.

Barefoot Indian women in flowered blouses reached out to touch John Paul's white vestments as he walked to an altar.

The pope will visit Nicaragua on Wednesday, El Salvador on Thursday and then travel to Venezuela during the 69th foreign mission of his papacy.

John Paul last visited Guatemala in March 1983, when the country was ruled by the military and at the height of civil war. Guatemala's leftist rebels announced a cease-fire, the third since November, to honor his visit.

President Alvaro Arzu, elected to a four-year term on Jan. 7, has said he wants a peace accord by August. But he has yet to name a new negotiating team and tough issues remain, including demilitarization.