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Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega goes after the Catholic Church in his latest effort to stop criticism of the government

“The church since 2018 has been close to the people denouncing the repression," a Nicaraguan legal scholar said, putting them in Ortega's and Vice President Rosario Murillo's "sights."
Image: Daniel Ortega, Rosasio Murillo
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega speaks next to first lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo during the inauguration ceremony of a highway overpass in Managua on March 21, 2019. Alfredo Zuniga / AP file

While Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega makes much of his own relationship with Christianity, the former leftist revolutionary's government has precipitated an unprecedented crackdown on the country's Catholic leadership.

On national television last month, Vice President Rosario Murillo, who is Ortega's wife, touted her love for and faith in God during celebrations of the 43rd anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. “Our Christian faith will stand,” she said.

At the same time, Nicaragua’s repression of the Catholic Church has intensified.

This year alone, the Ortega-Murillo government has arrested several priests, expelled missionaries, shut down Catholic radio stations, closed down a Catholic university and banned a Catholic procession and pilgrimage in a cathedral where the priest prayed for the nation.

The government's actions are the latest in a yearslong effort to stanch any critics or government opposition, including the arrest of opposition candidates before the country's elections last year.

On Aug. 21, Pope Francis called for a dialogue with the government as he expressed worries about the attacks against the church in Nicaragua. In Latin America, there's been a widespread outcry from Roman Catholic bishops in several countries including Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Paraguay.

Freedom of speech has deteriorated in the country as oppression intensifies. Out of fear of persecution, bishops and priests are relying on their peers who were forced into exile to share their stories. When asked for comments, the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, which is the church's top entity in the country, said it was not able to provide any interviews at the moment. 

Earlier this month, Bishop Rolando José Álvarez missed his first Mass since the siege began. “I wanted to go to the cathedral to ordain a Mass but the higher authorities did not allow it,” he said on a video shared on social media. “They have locked us up in the Episcopal Curia.”

Image: Rolando Alvarez
A man watches the mass of Bishop Rolando José Alvarez via Facebook in Managua, Nicaragua, on Aug. 11.Oswaldo Rivas / AFP - Getty Images

Álvarez was one of the priests who mediated peace talks and negotiations between the government and the opposition in 2018. He has now been accused of carrying out “acts of hate against the population.” 

He has been under house arrest with his aides in the city of Matagalpa for nearly three months, a move that has been condemned by the Organization of American States, or OAS. On May 20, he published a video on Facebook saying that he had been chased during the day by the national police. “They told me that they obey orders,” he said, “I now start an indefinite water and serum fasting.” He demanded that his family’s privacy be respected.

“The attacks against the Catholic Church in Nicaragua are part of a broader pattern to silence organizations and individuals who are critical to the government,” a spokesperson for Amnesty International told NBC News. The organization, which has also strongly condemned Alvarez's arrest, said human rights violations in Nicaragua have reached a critical stage since 2018.

In Nicaragua, there is a before and after 2018. Amid political unrest that led to 300 deaths and more than 2,000 injured people, several nongovernmental organizations, students and academic workers created the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy. This national dialogue with the government, moderated by Nicaraguan bishops such as Alvarez, presented a series of demands in an attempt to find justice for the victims of the protests.

“The church is in favor of justice,” said the Rev. Rafael Bermúdez, one of the moderators at the alliance. The Roman Catholic priest became actively invested in the demonstrations in 2018, providing help to the injured and support to the families of those who were killed. “When there is unjust persecution, when silence is imposed, when all freedoms are taken away,” he said, “it becomes a total social crime.” 

Academic and legal scholar María Asunción Moreno is a member of the alliance and was part of the national dialogue. “The church since 2018 has been close to the people denouncing the repression and raising its voice for justice,” she said. “That has put the priests and bishops in Ortega-Murillo’s sights.”

Bermúdez said he was beaten, threatened, detained multiple times and forced into exile; he's now in California. He said that for him, helping Nicaraguans was not an act of politics, but one of humanity.

Nicaraguans have turned to social media to denounce the government's repression against church leaders.

The Managua Cathedral, a landmark in the capital city, held a mass under heavy police presence on Saturday, Aug. 13 after authorities had prohibited a procession in honor of the Virgin of Fátima. That did not stop hundreds of people from gathering in front the cathedral, where the priest Sebastián López held the Mass.

Photos of the Mass went viral, and resonated as a symbol of resistance against repression in the church. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, or Cenidh, later created the hashtag #QueCeseLaRepresiónContraLaIglesia (“Strop the repression against the Church”) to raise awareness of the increasing tensions with the government. 

As social media accounts join forces to denounce human rights violations against the church, Amnesty International said that global awareness is crucial to pressure the Ortega-Murillo government. “It is clear that nobody and no institution is protected in Nicaragua from the brutality of the Ortega-Murillo government,” the group said. “It's important that the international community act to protect human rights in the country.”

Some other religious figures have raised their voices through messages on Catholic radio stations, praying for peace and a cessation of injustices. But earlier this month, the country's telecommunications agency shut down a number of the stations. “We will continue to report and denounce any situation like this that continues to violate freedom of expression and religion in Nicaragua,” the church said in an official statement. Some continue to post their prayers online.

Despite efforts to silence one of Nicaragua’s most venerated institutions, Moreno said, the country's faithful are persisting. “What we have seen is brave people that accompany their priests and do masses in the streets,” she said. “The Catholic Church in Nicaragua carries the evangelizing message and for this reason it is persecuted.” 

Religion a part of Ortega's rise

Religion has long been part of Ortega’s discourse. The 76-year-old president first took power in 1985 following the 1979 Sandinista revolution, which overthrew the Somoza dictatorship.

According to Martín Iñiguez, a professor at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City who has done extensive research on religion in Central America, religion played an important role in Ortega’s rise to power during the Sandinista revolution, creating a divide inside the Nicaraguan church between those who believed in revolution through the use of armed conflict, and those who didn’t.

Ortega benefited from the support of the Nicaraguan church in the 1980s. “What we are witnessing is an impressive setback for Nicaragua,” Iñiguez said. “Those who were once Daniel Ortega’s allies are now his enemies."

Bermúdez, the exiled priest, considers Ortega’s religious discourse as a political strategy. “They have used the name of God because they know they’ve fallen before a Christian population,” he said. 

A 2021 Latinobarómetro poll found that the Catholic Church in Nicaragua was the most trusted institution for 65% of those polled, followed by the government at 38%. Catholicism, however, has lost ground in the country; with evangelicals accounting for about a third of the population in 2020, according to Statista.

Iñiguez believes that Nicaragua’s war on the Catholic Church is a strategy to weaken those who were once his allies, while Ortega seeks to create new alliances, including religious ones, in the region.

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