"I got engaged just before the embassy was taken," confided one American hostage to a visiting clergyman Easter Sunday. "Father, tell my fiancee not to wait for me."
"We'll probably never get out of here," said several others, now in their sixth month of captivity to an international tug of war mot did little to creat, and none can do anything to resolve.
"We don't need to pray," said another of the 50 hostages. "We need things done, in Washington."
"Things aren't always as pleasant as they look on this festive occasion," another was quoted as saying. And when the ministers were able to offer a holiday helping of fresh fruit, one of the older hostages commented, "We don't get this very often."
Beyond the signs of creeping despair, the three American clergymen allowed into the chained United States Embassy confines for indoor Easter services also reported reason for hope. There was no evidence of physical mistreatment, they told this reporter April 7.
The hostages -- at least the 31 seen by the American ministers -- appear well fed . . . and well read. Among the younger captives, one of the clergymen said, "there was a clear inner strength, the feeling that they were determined and confident of pulling through."
But there also was despair. Especially among some of the older hostages -- "a minority," one minister said -- "there was a certain bitterness or sometimes defeatism."
One of the clergymen added that the more despondent or bitter of the captives may have been "shunted into other groups," meaning they may have been seen by three non-American pastors who also conducted services.
And it remains impossible to confirm that all the hostages had been seen by at least one of the visiting clergymen, although the militant Muslim students holding the embassy assured the American clergymen this was so.
An Iranian Cabinet minister who says he saw all the captives in late February told Newsweek magazine that the most "troublesome," or those suspected or spying , were sometimes placed in solitary, silent confinement.
For the others, the American ministers reported, life has gotten better as the ordeal, in its 156th day at this writing, drags on.
"At first the students treated us like prisoners," one hostage was quoted as saying. "Now they see us more as human beings and treat us that way."
But the central problem is that life under armed captors, even if it gets better, can never be good. "Basically," one of the clergymen put it, "all of them want to go home."
None of them seems to know how near or far that day may be. "The hostages are apparently kept isolated from outside political news," one minister said. He said the only condition for the Easter visit was that "we make no mention of political developments."
Meanwhile, the Midwestern clergymen said, the hostages' diet is being embellished with items from a two-year supply of foodstuffs on stock at the embassy. Video films that were also in the embassy when it was stormed last Nov. 4 are being shown to individual groups of hostages on individual television consoles.
Books have been transferred from a local American school. "The library [at the US Embassy] is full on all four walls," said one of the visiting clergymen. Mail arrives from back home. He said this "is the greatest source of comfort for the hostages, but also the greatest source of frustration, since sometimes the delivery is irregular."
A few of the hostages whose families had critized US policy reportedly suspected Washington was holding things up. Others, the ministers said, suspected their captors of delaying delivery.
The captives seen by the American ministers were "rooming" in small groups. "There were very close relationships between roommates. They helped each other out, supported each other," said one clergyman.
But he said it appeared individual hostage groups were not permitted to mix. "Security," said the minister, "is heavy."
The three clerics -- the Rev. Jack Bremer of Lawrence, Kansas, and the Rev. Nelson Thomson of Kansas City, Missouri (both Methodists); plus the Rev. Darrell Rupiper (Roman Catholic) of Nebraska -- saw hostages in separate groups of two, three, or four.
The ministers opposed hostage-taking but sympathized with some of Iran's grievances against the United States. The embassy's student captors, said one minister, "are deeply religious. They are sincere. They are human. A few cried when accompanying us on our services and talks with the hostages."
But the ministers saw, and reported, suffering as well.
There was Charles Jones, the embassy teletype operator who was the only black hostage left behind when the students freed 13 black and female captives in November.
Almost killed in Vietnam, stationed in Israel during the 1967 Middle East war , Mr. Jones said with a smile, "This is the first time danger caught up with me." But behind the smile was concern.
"We kept hearing the words, 'If I get out,'" said one of the ministers. "We kept saying, 'When you get out. . . .'"
And there was another, somewhat older hostage. One of the ministers, withholding the captive's name, recalled that "he was the saddest of all.
"He seemed to be about at the end. His nerves looked bad. He hadn't collapsed or anything, but you could see he was wearing thin."
the captives looked at the minister and said: "You've gotta do something."