Since 2018, Ortega faithful have been monitoring Eucharists for ‘rogue’ priests, while police harass parishes and threaten priests with jail
HAVANA TIMES — Priest “Carlos” moved to a safer area inside the parish house, anticipating that the police contingent that patrolled his parish day and night could raid it at any time. It was in August that a new chapter of Ortega’s crackdown on the Catholic Church began, but this time more violent than in previous years, imprisoning priests, threatening them, desecrating temples and generating an outpouring of clergy. in exile.
The priest’s caution was due to recent precedent. On August 1, a police contingent violently entered Jesús de la Divina Misericordia parish in Sébaco and surrounded priest Uriel Vallejos for three days. Father Carlos knew he was being watched and that this kind of aggression could be repeated, this time against him.
A parishioner told Father Carlos that the police had sent him a message: “Tell your priest that if he doesn’t shut up, we will move him”. The officer had threatened the woman when she scolded him for harassing the parish house, while a group of Catholics were reciting the rosary. “It was the first threat I received in August, and already like that, in a direct way,” says Father Carlos, who has experienced the regime’s persecution since 2018 in two different parishes.
Escalating attacks on priests have prompted many to flee the country, including Father Vallejos and Father Erick Diaz, both from the diocese of Matagalpa, who have been threatened with imprisonment.
61% of the population disagree with the forced departure of the clergy from Nicaragua due to government intimidation, according to the latest survey by the Costa Rican firm CID Gallup, carried out between September 26 and October 10 via telephone calls to 1,200 people over 16 years of age. Only 18% of those polled answered “somewhat or completely agree” with the exile of the clergy.
Forms of persecution against priests
Father Carlos agreed – on condition of anonymity – to share information about the strategies used by the Ortega government to intimidate him.
The priest says he has been under surveillance since 2018, when he had not remained silent in the face of human rights violations, including the 355 deaths recorded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as part of repression and massacres by the government against the civic rebellion that year.
“They called me a thug, a putschist,” Carlos said. He received anonymous messages threatening his life: “We will shoot you”, “Your head will roll”. In recent months, the threats have reappeared: “We are going to kill you”, they told him. Or they threatened him with prison: “You are going to go to El Chipote”.
“They – the government party – are infiltrating Sandinistas into our churches”, warns the priest. Since 2018, fanatical “Orteguistas” have been recording his homilies and compiling a list of priests who they believe have entered politics. “I denounced things that were wrong, nothing else, and that’s not going into politics,” says Father Carlos.
In his homilies, Father Carlos denounced the injustices committed by the Nicaraguan government and questioned the abuses of power and the fanaticism of Ortega’s supporters. He was one of the prophetic voices of the Catholic Church in a country controlled by a de facto police state imposed since 2018 by Ortega and Murillo.
“The Church is the first to speak out against a situation that is not right,” Carlos says. “We are priests who defend the great postulates that God has given us: love, justice, mercy, charity, not taking advantage of the poor,” he explains.
The priest identified different ways in which the ruling Sandinista party harassed him and his parishioners:
1. Photographing parishioners in procession, even before processions were banned in some parts of the country. The police stood in front and took pictures of everyone, scaring the parishioners.
2. Increased police presence around the churchwith a couple of policemen standing at either end of the parish, intimidating parishioners who had to overcome their fear to enter the church.
3. Photographing Catholics leaving Masswhich also increased “people’s fear of going to mass,” says Carlos.
4. Harassment of houses hosting parish groups, with such persecution increasing from August. The police did not limit themselves to harassing the church and its surroundings, but also stationed themselves in front of the houses where the members of the ecclesial communities gathered to pray, but also to photograph them or urge them not to continue to to gather.
From June until today, Ortega’s government has pursued a crusade against the Catholic Church that has included the detention of priests, including Rolando Álvarez, Bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa and Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Estelí, who, along with other clergy and laity, were blocked inside the Episcopal Curia of Matagalpa for 15 days by a police contingent. He was then transferred to house arrest on August 19.
Condemnation of the closure of radios
Previously, the Instituto Nicaragüense de Telecomunicaciones y Correos (Telcor), cerró una decena de radios católicas adcritas a la Diocese liderada por Álvarez.….
Prior to the Curia’s blockade, the Nicaraguan Telecommunications and Postal Institute (Telcor), had closed 10 Catholic radio stations linked to the diocese headed by Álvarez. The bishop questioned the decision, arguing that they had their paperwork in order.
“If the director of Telcor, Nahíma Díaz Flores, agrees to meet with me, I will bring her all the documents that I presented to Telcor, with the signed acknowledgments of receipt. If Telcor is right, I will say myself in public that they are right, that they should close our radios, but if they are not right, that they have the courage to say that they were wrong or that they want to shut down our radios on purpose,” the prelate said in an annoyed tone from the pulpit of the Cathedral of San Pedro de Matagalpa.
63% of the population ‘disagree or somewhat disagree’ with the arbitrary closure of radio stations with purely Catholic content, which has also been condemned as another assault on freedom of expression, according to the results from the aforementioned Gallup CID poll.
Besides the illegal arrest of the bishop and several of his priests and collaborators, several priests were forced into exile.
Father Carlos’ security situation has also deteriorated. Surveillance was increased and riot police were posted in front and behind the rectory, and on one occasion a riot policeman and another policeman followed him as he went shopping. From then on, he avoided going out alone for security reasons.
Parish Harassment in the Southeast
Intimidation of priests is widespread across the country, but clergy who agreed to speak to CONFIDENTIAL on condition of anonymity acknowledged there is a great deal of fear in speaking out against such persecution.
In the southeast of the country, Father “Luis” has been harassed since 2018, when his parish turned into an improvised emergency in the face of repression.
With the violent destruction of the roadblocks, which Daniel Ortega called “operation cleaning” and which was carried out by paramilitaries and police, Father Luis began to receive the first attacks: “putschist”, “murderer”. The reaction of Ortega loyalists was consistent with the hate speech of Ortega and Murillo, who openly accused the priests of participating in the “coup”, as the government calls the 2018 civic uprising.
For four years, Father Luis lived under the threat of persecution. There have been quiet months, but lately he has been under full-time supervision. Ortega paramilitaries and fanatics attended and recorded his masses, stood in front of the church and accompanied the processions to photograph the population. He says infiltration by the Sandinista Front is not a recent strategy. Since 2018, he knew that there were Ortega devotees recording and monitoring his movements.
In the case of Father Luis, the harassment escalated from November 2021, when several priests denounced the electoral farce, in which Ortega secured a fourth consecutive presidential term after imprisoning opposition candidates and political leaders for “treason against the fatherland”.
The police intensified their harassment of the parish. Outside there were two patrols and paramilitaries watching Luis’ movements. They threatened him directly: from the church he would go directly to prison, he remembers having been warned.
The priests “Carlos” and “Luis” affirm that their situations are not isolated. Many parish priests experience the same harassment, even though they are afraid to report it, and there are clergy who choose to remain silent to avoid this type of persecution.
Three times a police chief visited Father Carlos. The most recent visit was in early September. The officer wanted to oblige the priest to inform him of all his daily activities, of the communities he visited, and to give him the names and telephone numbers of the delegates of the word.
“You want me to give you my diary,” said Father Carlos, surprised by the officer’s request.
“Yes, give me your address book,” confirmed the policeman.
The priest protested. On what he insisted was a cordial tone, he told the officer that he was unwilling to give him any information, that this act was an abuse of authority and improper.
Father Carlos admits that he was afraid of being imprisoned, after seeing the last authoritarian actions of the Ortega government against the Church. “Who wants to suffer [jail]? No one, but when I went to pray the Blessed Sacrament –Lord, help me, give me strength–, I felt God’s strength, my fear was gone, I felt very good, very happy because I knew I was doing the right thing. I carry the cross of the Lord”, says the priest, comforted.
Father Luis managed to continue celebrating Mass with the police outside, aware that at any time they could enter the church. He says the “strength of the Holy Spirit” gives him the courage to continue his ministry and to “pray for the people who harass us”.
“Have you thought about going into exile? he was asked.
“There are times when I think about it,” he replies. And then he adds, “I think leaving would be giving up what the Lord has given me, but He has to tell me.