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Explained | Nicaragua and its current conflict with the Catholic Church
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Is Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua targeting members of the Catholic Church?

August 20, 2022 01:42 pm | Updated August 23, 2022 11:54 am IST

Protestors gather to demand respect for religious freedom and an end to the persecution against the Church and the opponents of the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega outside the Nicaraguan Embassy in Mexico City, Mexico, on August 16, 2022.

Protestors gather to demand respect for religious freedom and an end to the persecution against the Church and the opponents of the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega outside the Nicaraguan Embassy in Mexico City, Mexico, on August 16, 2022. | Photo Credit: Reuters/Edgard Garrido

The story so far: Tensions between Nicaragua and the Catholic Church are once again on the rise after a series of actions taken by the government of Daniel Ortega, the country’s President.

Nicaraguan police detained Priest Oscar Benavidez for unknown reasons last week. Vatican News reported that the pastor was detained by police in Mulukuku municipality, according to a statement released on August 15. Earlier this month, the government also banned seven radio stations belonging to the Catholic Church and launched an investigation against another priest who has been accused of organising “violent groups”, news agency AP reported. Bishop Alvarez of Matagalpa and a few other priests were placed under house arrest on August 4.  

The Nicaraguan police also banned a Catholic procession and pilgrimage in the capital Managua citing internal security reasons, news agency Reuters reported.

What happened?

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights - Central America and the Dominican Republic (OACNUDH), the Nicaraguan police raided the parish of Jesús de la Divina Misericordia, in the municipality of Sébaco in Matagalpa on August 1. The raid took place in connection with the closing of the Diocese’s media outlets by the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Postal Services. Police units, which included anti-riot units, reportedly stormed the parish compound to seize broadcast equipment. The priest and other people asked for help through social media, and at least one of the responders – a citizen – suffered a serious eye injury due to police action.

On August 4, the police stopped Bishop Alvarez of Matagalpa from reaching the Cathedral of San Pedro to officiate a mass. The Bishop, along with other priests and a few other people, is reportedly being held at Episcopal Curia in Matagalpa.

According to the police, the priests and members of the Church are inciting people to “carry out acts of hatred against the population, provoking an atmosphere of anxiety and disorder, disturbing the peace and harmony in the community, with the purpose of destabilising the State of Nicaragua and attacking the constitutional authorities”, the OACNUDH flash report said. In January 2022, the European Union placed sanctions on Nicaragua’s police force, electoral body, and President Ortega’s children who are working as presidential advisors, while the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned six officials connected with the regime.

In the past, Bishop Alvarez has stressed the need for electoral reform in the country and demanded the release of people he considers “political prisoners”.

The Catholic Church in Nicaragua has received support from various Episcopal conferences in Latin America, including those in Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In a statement, the Latin American and Caribbean Episcopal Council (CELAM) said, “when one member suffers, all members suffer with him.”

The majority of the population in Nicaragua is Catholic, followed by other groups including Pentecostals, Mennonites, Moravian Lutherans, and Baptists.

Who is Daniel Ortega?

President Ortega was the face of the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua in 1979. He was the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Dictator Anastasio Somoza was supported by the U.S., and the FSLN used guerrilla fighting techniques against his regime. Mr. Ortega was a member of the “Junta of National Reconstruction” that ruled the country. The Sandinistas returned to power in 1984, but Mr. Ortega lost the election in 1990 to the National Opposition Union.

He returned to power again in 2007 and altered the constitutionally-mandated limit on the number of Presidential terms to retain power in 2016. By then, the FSLN had already delegitimised the political opposition and removed it from the legislature. He won the election in 2021 too, but the polls were alleged to be not fair and transparent. His wife, Rosario Murillo, is currently the Vice President of Nicaragua.

Is the unrest new?

No. In April 2018, violent protests broke out across Nicaragua against President Ortega’s social security reforms and subsequently his authoritarian regime. Dozens of people were reported injured and killed.

Amidst the demonstrations, the Church emerged as a safe haven for the protestors, implying that it sided with them and hence against President Ortega. Security forces invaded an area near Managua’s Metropolitan Cathedral where the Roman Catholic Church had been collecting donations.

On April 21, 2018, bishops rescued students surrounded by police and opposing protestors in the Metropolitan Cathedral, The Guardian reported. Silvio Baez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, thanked them and called them the “country’s moral reserve”. 

The Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference persuaded Ortega to allow them to mediate peace talks but negotiations could not succeed. In July, the police opened fire at a church harbouring protesting students, and one of them was reportedly killed. 

A few days later, President Ortega blamed the Church for taking the side of the protestors. He alleged that they were part of a plot to overthrow him and called them “terrorists”.

Baez left the country in April 2019 following requests from Pope Francis, in order to save him from the death threats he had been receiving in Nicaragua. According to local media outlet Confidencial, Baez described Ortega’s government as a “regime of cruelty” and refuted the allegations made against the Catholic Church.

How has the Vatican responded?

Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz, the Vatican’s Permanent Observer to the Organisation of American States, has called for a dialogue to resolve the issue. “The Holy See cannot fail to express its concern in this regard, while assuring those who are committed to dialogue as an indispensable instrument of democracy and guarantor of a more humane and fraternal civilization that it always wishes to collaborate with,” he said in a statement, according to Vatican News.

(With inputs from agencies)

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