MANILA, Philippines (AP) _ The Roman Catholic Church is emerging as an avenue for contacts with communist rebels as President Corazon Aquino's government struggles to salvage peace talks and end the 17-year leftist insurgency.

Mrs. Aquino, who like 85 percent of her 55 million fellow Filipinos is Catholic, turned to the church to set up Friday's meeting with communist representatives on Panay island.

Talks with national communist representatives had been stalled since the Sept. 29 arrest of Rodolfo Salas, described by government officials as chairman of the country's Communist Party and commander of its armed wing, the New People's Army.

But national level negotiators met Saturday for the first time in six weeks, according to Maris Diokno, a daughter and a member of the staff of former Sen. Jose W. Diokno, one of the three government negotiators.

''They agreed not to disclose details of their meeting,'' Ms. Diokno said Sunday in a telephone interview. She said the negotiators agreed to meet again, but that a date had not yet been set.

Archbishop Alberto Piamonte of Iloilo, who arranged Friday's meeting, indicated that other local church leaders would be willing to help establish contacts between rebels and the government.

''All the bishops want peace in their dioceses,'' he told a local television station in Iloilo. ''We all want peace.''

Mrs. Aquino proposed at the meeting that both sides set up negotiating teams to try to achieve a cease-fire on the island.

In turning to the church, Mrs. Aquino bypassed local government officials and the military. Some military leaders share Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile's doubts over negotiations with the rebels.

Piamonte said local civil and military officials were unaware of his efforts to arrange the meeting, Mrs. Aquino's first face-to-face encounter with rebel representatives.

He said once the military learned the meeting had been scheduled, Mrs. Aquino personally telephoned Chief of Staff Gen. Fidel V. Ramos and the local army commander, Brig. Gen. Domingo Rio, to express her personal interest in its taking place.

Piamonte said the rebels agreed to the church's setting up the meeting ''because we are obviously the only ones they trust.''

The church appears well-placed to play a role in mediation between the communists and the government. It played a crucial role in last February's revolution by calling on the people to support the army mutiny against President Ferdinand E. Marcos, and thereby strengthened its credibility with the anti-Marcos left.

Cardinal Jaime Sin, known for his deep aversion to Marxism, nonetheless has said that many of the estimated 22,000 communist rebels joined the insurgency out of hostility to the Marcos regime and a sense of hopelessness over their abject poverty.

Church sources say local clerics have maintained close contacts with rebel groups based in their dioceses and know many of the rebels personally from the days when they attended church-operated schools as youngsters.

In Friday's meeting, the rebel representatives included a renegade priest, the Rev. Jose Torre, and Concha Araneta Bocala, who was educated in church schools.

Bishop Antonio Fortich of Negros island said at least three renegade priests have joined rebel bands operating in his diocese. He said the New People's Army commander on Negros, Francisco Demafiles, was educated at a parish school.

Fortich, whose personal contacts with the rebels have earned him the disdain of conservatives in and out of the church, also maintains that many of the rebels remain Christian despite communism's rejection of the faith.

''Many of them are social reformers,'' Fortich said in an interview at his residence in Bacolod City. ''The fact that many of them have their children baptized shows they are Christians. They went up there into the hills for their grievances.''