Explained | Nicaragua and its current conflict with the Catholic Church


Does Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua target members of the Catholic Church?

Does Daniel Ortega’s government in Nicaragua target members of the Catholic Church?

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

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

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

What happened?

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – Central America and the Dominican Republic (OACNUDH), Nicaraguan police raided the parish of Jesús de la Divina Misericordia, in the municipality of Sébaco in Matagalpa , August 1st. took place on the occasion of the closure of the media of the diocese by the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Postal Services. Police units, including riot squads, reportedly stormed the parish compound to seize broadcast equipment. The priest and others appealed for help through social media, and at least one of the responders – a citizen – suffered serious eye injuries due to police action.

On August 4, police prevented Bishop Alvarez de Matagalpa from reaching San Pedro Cathedral to officiate a mass. The bishop, along with other priests and a few other people, are said to be detained in the episcopal curia of Matagalpa.

According to the police, priests and members of the Church incite people to “commit acts of hatred against the population, causing an atmosphere of anxiety and disorder, disturbing peace and harmony in the community, in the purpose of destabilizing the State of Nicaragua and attacking the constitutional authorities”, states the flash report of the OACNUDH. In January 2022, the European Union placed punishments on the Nicaraguan police, the electoral body and the children of President Ortega who work as presidential advisers, while the US Treasury Department has sanctioned six officials linked to 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 of Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In a statement, the Episcopal Council of Latin America and the Caribbean (CELAM) said that “when one member suffers, all the members suffer with him.”

The majority of Nicaragua’s population is Roman 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 backed by the United States and the FSLN used guerrilla techniques against his rule. Mr. Ortega was a member of the “National Reconstruction Junta” that ruled the country. The Sandinistas returned to power in 1984, but Mr Ortega lost the 1990 elections to the opposition National Union.

He returned to power in 2007 and changed the constitutional presidential term limit to retain power in 2016. By then, the FSLN had already delegitimized the political opposition and removed it from the legislature. He also won the 2021 election, but the polls weren’t fair and transparent. His wife, Rosario Murillo, is currently Vice President of Nicaragua.

Are the troubles new?

No. In April 2018, violent protests erupted across Nicaragua against President Ortega’s social security reforms and later against his authoritarian rule. Dozens of people were reportedly injured and killed.

Amid the protests, the Church has emerged as a haven for protesters, implying that it has sided with them and therefore against President Ortega. Security forces invaded an area near the Metropolitan Cathedral of Managua where the Roman Catholic Church had been collecting donations.

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

The Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference persuaded Ortega to allow them to negotiate peace talks, but the negotiations were unsuccessful. In July, police opened fire on a church housing protesting students, and one of them was reportedly killed.

A few days later, President Ortega blamed the Church for siding with the protesters. He alleged 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 to save him from the death threats he was receiving in Nicaragua. According to a local media ConfidentialBaez described Ortega’s government as a “regime of cruelty” and refuted allegations made against the Catholic Church.

How did the Vatican react?

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

(With agency contributions)


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