MIAMI — Christian leaders strongly objected to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno for ordering the armed seizure of Elian Gonzalez over Easter weekend.

“They are atheists. They don't believe in God,” said Miami Mayor Joe Carollo of the raid on April 22 — Holy Saturday.

Patrick Scully, spokesman for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said the timing of the assault was “abhorrent.”

“The same president who held off the bombing of Iraq because of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan was not phased that this was the holiest weekend on the Catholic and Christian calendar,” said Scully.

Armed federal agents used pepper spray to disperse a crowd outside the house of Elian's relatives in Miami during the 5:15 a.m. raid. News reports said agents burst into the house, shouting obscenities — “Where's the [expletive] kid?”

An agent then broke down Elian's bedroom door and wielded an automatic rifle at the boy, who was held by Donato Dalrymple, the fisherman who had rescued him from the sea. During the raid, agents also knocked over a statue of the Blessed Mother.

“This is a day of shame,” said Charles Donovan, executive vice president of the Family Research Council. “Americans will never forget, the world will long remember the dark day when armed men brutalized a child. An investigation of the pre-dawn raid in Miami is in order.”

U.S. Senator Bob Graham, a Florida Democrat, said he had been assured that there would be no nighttime raid.

“The president of the United States made that commitment to me, that there would be no taking of this child at night,” said Graham at the press conference.

The Justice Department didn't return calls for comment.

In a statement made the day of the raid, President Clinton said:

“The Department of Justice, under the leadership of Attorney General Reno, went to great lengths to negotiate a voluntary transfer.

Even yesterday, the attorney general worked very hard on this late into the night, showing great restraint, patience and compassion. When all efforts failed, there was no alternative but to enforce the decision of the INS and a federal court that Juan Miguel Gonzalez should have custody of his son. The law has been upheld, and that was the right thing to do.”

Elian was rescued off the Florida coast on Thanksgiving Day after the boat he was in capsized and sunk. His mother and several other Cubans in the boat died. Until the raid by federal agents, Elian had been living with relatives in Miami since the rescue. His father was seeking custody of the child to return with him to Cuba.

In a sharply worded essay before the raid in the Boston Globe, Cardinal Bernard Law had called on those involved in the Elian Gonzalez case to “let the circus end and allow the return of Elian to his father.”

“Enough ink has been spilled on the complexity of this case,” he wrote. “For me, it is rather the simplicity of the case which is so overwhelming. … Absent clear evidence of the father's unsuitability as a parent, Elian belongs with his father.”

Cardinal Law's comments appeared on the op-ed page of the Globe April 19, as Elian's Miami relatives continued to press a court appeal in their fight against a federal order to yield custody of the child.

Essayist Peggy Noonan believed that the timing was no accident.

“The quaint Catholics of Little Havana would be lulled into a feeling of safety; most of the country would be distracted by family gettogethers and feasts,” wrote Noonan in The Wall Street Journal. “It was to the Clinton administration, a sensible time to break down doors.”