Tensions between Nicaragua and the Catholic Church

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Earlier this month, Nicaragua shut down seven Catholic Church radio stations and launched an investigation into the Bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, who accuses him of inciting violent actors “to hate acts against the population.” ”

This isn’t the first time President Daniel Ortega has used aggressive tactics to silence critics of his administration. In 2018, the government raided the headquarters of the Confidencial newspaper, led by journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, considered one of Ortega’s most prominent critics. Then, over the course of 2021, authorities arrested seven potential presidential candidates for this year’s November election.

Here’s a look at the strained relationship between the Church and the government amid a political standoff that is now in its fifth year, with no end in sight.

WHO IS DANIEL ORTEGA?

Ortega, 76, is a former left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front guerrilla fighter who helped overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and initially served as president from 1985 until he left office in 1990 after being voted out.

He then lost three more elections before returning to power in 2007. He won a fourth straight term in the 2021 election, which is widely discredited as he met no real opposition.

Ortega’s opponents regularly compare him to Somoza because of his authoritarian tendencies and also accuse him of dynastic ambitions. His wife, Rosario Murillo, is his powerful vice president.

Under Ortega, Nicaragua has developed strong ties with allies Cuba and Venezuela, two staunch enemies of the US government.

HOW DID THE UNREST BEGIN?

A 2018 social security reform sparked massive protests, supported by businesspeople, Catholic leaders and other sectors. The government’s response was a crackdown by security forces and allied civilian militias that left at least 355 people dead, around 2,000 injured and 1,600 arrested, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Political stability has never fully returned.

Months ahead of last year’s vote, a poll found support for five opposition candidates seriously threatening Ortega’s re-election. Within weeks, all five were arrested along with two other potential candidates. Authorities accused them of responsibility for the 2018 riots, saying it was tantamount to a “terrorist coup attempt” allegedly backed by Washington.

“Ortega decided to suppress any possibility of losing. … And that meant arresting everyone,” political analyst Oscar Rene Vargas told The Associated Press at the time.

WHAT ROLE DID THE CHURCH PLAY?

Nicaragua is predominantly Catholic, and the church was close to the Somozas from the 1930s through the 1970s, when it distanced itself from politics after many abuses were attributed to the dictatorship. The church initially supported the Sandinistas after Somoza’s fall, but this relationship broke down over time due to ideological differences. Under Ortega, Catholic leaders have often supported the country’s conservative elite.

When protests first erupted, Ortega asked the church to mediate in the peace talks, but ultimately failed.

The Nicaraguan Church showed remarkable sympathy for the protesters and their cause. In April 2018, Managua Cathedral housed student protesters and was a place to collect food and money to support them.

Figures such as Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, have spoken out strongly against violence. Brenes called the demonstrations justified and Báez opposed any political decision that would harm people. Báez left the country in 2019 at the request of the Vatican, a transfer lamented by the opposition and celebrated by the ruling Sandinistas.

Ortega has subsequently accused some bishops of being part of a conspiracy to overthrow him, calling them “terrorists”.

In March, the papal nuncio in Managua, Monsignor Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, who acted as a mediator and lobbied for the release of jailed opponents of the government, was forced by Ortega’s government to leave the country in what the Vatican called an “unjustified decision”.

WHAT ABOUT THE RECENT CHURCH-STATE CONFLICT?

Church radio stations were shut down by the government on August 1, and police investigating Álvarez, the Bishop of Matagalpa, accused him of “organizing violent groups.”

Álvarez has called for deep electoral reform to “effectively achieve the democratization of the country” and also called for the release of some 190 people he considers political prisoners. Last month he held a fast in protest of what he called persecution against him.

Since August 3, authorities have confined Álvarez to the episcopal complex where he lives. After six days of no public statements, he reappeared Thursday live on social media at a mass, accompanied by six priests and four lay people, who are also unable to leave the complex.

The Archdiocese of Managua has expressed its support for Álvarez. The Conference of Latin American Catholic Bishops condemned what it called a “siege” of priests and bishops, the expulsion of members of religious communities and “continuous harassment” against the Nicaraguan people and the Church.

Hundreds of Nicaraguans attended a mass on Saturday amid heavy police presence after the government banned a religious procession in Managua.

Church leaders announced a day earlier that the National Police had banned the planned procession of Our Lady of Fatima on “internal security” grounds. Instead, the church called on the faithful to come to the cathedral peacefully.

DID THE VATICAN GIVE AN ANSWER?

For almost two weeks, the Vatican has been publicly silent about the investigation into Álvarez. The silence drew criticism from some Latin American human rights activists and intellectuals.

On Friday, Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz, the Vatican’s permanent observer at the Organization of American States, expressed his concern about the situation and urged both parties to “seek ways of understanding.”

Cruz’s comments came during a special session of the OAS at which its Permanent Council passed a resolution condemning Ortega’s government for “harassment” and “arbitrary restrictions imposed on religious organizations and those who criticize the government.” .

Cruz said the Holy See wanted to “collaborate with those committed to dialogue as an indispensable tool of democracy and guarantor of a more humane and fraternal civilization.”

___

Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield of the Vatican and Christopher Sherman of Mexico City contributed to this report.

___

The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

Comments are closed.