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Nicaragua: Crackdown on Catholic Church spreads fear among the faithful, there and in exile

GIOVANNA DELL’ORTO, of Associated Press, reports on the ongoing impact of President Daniel Ortega’s crackdown on churches in Nicaragua…

Miami, US

Nineteen priests kicked out of the country, dozens of incidents of harassment and church desecrations, rural areas lacking worship and social services: the situation for Catholic clergy and faithful in Nicaragua is only worsening in 2024, according to exiled priests, laypeople in the Central American country and human rights advocates.

The fear of the ongoing crackdown by President Daniel Ortega – on the Catholic Church in particular but not sparing evangelicals – has become so pervasive that it is silencing criticism of the authoritarian government and even mentions of the repression from the pulpit.

Catholics take part in a reenactment of the Stations of the Cross during the Lenten season at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua, Nicaragua, on Friday, 17th March, 2023. PICTURE: AP Photo/Inti Ocon/File photo.

“All the time the silence gets deeper,” said Martha Patricia Molina, a Nicaraguan lawyer who fled to the United States. Her work recording hundreds of instances of church persecution recently won her an International Religious Freedom Award from the US State Department.

“If it’s dangerous to pray the rosary in the street, it is exceedingly so to report attacks,” Molina said.

“All the time the silence gets deeper.”

– Nicaraguan lawyer Martha Patricia Molina

“Many priests believe that if they make reports, there will be more reprisals against the communities. We as laypeople would like for them to speak, but the only alternatives are cemetery, prison or exile.”

She counted 30 church desecrations in the past year, only a few reported to authorities. Recently, she heard of a priest who went to the police after a theft in his church – only to be cursed at and told he was a suspect.

“Life in Nicaragua is hell, because surveillance is brutal. You can’t say anything that’s against the government,” said an exiled priest. Like him, most exiles interviewed for this story spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution against their families or communities in Nicaragua.

“People now keep their heads down, as they wonder, ‘If they do this to the priests, what will they do with us?’” the clergyman added. He was barred from returning to Nicaragua, where he, like many priests and nuns, drew the government’s ire for providing shelter and first aid to those injured when the Ortega government violently repressed massive civic protests in 2018.

The unrest then, which started against proposed social security cuts, broadened to demand early elections and to accuse Ortega of authoritarian measures after hundreds of demonstrators were killed by security forces and allied civilian groups.

A photo of Bishop Rolando Alvarez is pinned to a robe on a statue of Jesus Christ at the Cathedral in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, on Friday, 19th August, 2022. PICTURE: AP Photo/Inti Ocon/File photo.

Like several Latin American governments tracing their roots back to socialist revolutions, Nicaragua’s has had an uneven relationship with faith leaders for decades. But those protests triggered an escalating and systematic targeting of the church in what the US Government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom calls a “campaign of harassment and severe persecution.”

Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, who also is the Vice President, blame “terrorist” clergy for supporting the civil unrest they claim amounts to plotting a coup against them. Clergy and lay observers say the government is trying to quash the church because it remains the rare critic in Nicaragua that dares to oppose state violence and whose voice is respected by many citizens.

The “unprecedented exiling of critical voices” – from religious leaders to journalists and artists – in Nicaragua amounts to a “total censorship plan,” said Alicia Quiñones, who leads the freedom of expression organisation PEN International in the Americas.

It’s become nearly impossible to do independent reporting in Nicaragua, she added, citing last year’s imprisonment of a journalist on the charge of “fake information” after he covered an Easter celebration when public Catholic feasts have largely been barred.

“The pressure is becoming unsufferable,” said one priest now in the United States. Like others, he says Mass-goers have started noticing people in the pews they have never seen before and fear they’re there to report on any whiff of opposition to the government, even if only a prayer for the safety of clergy imprisoned in often dangerous conditions.

In a country where more than 80 per cent of the population is Christian – about 50 per cent Catholic and more than 30 per cent evangelicals, according to the US religious freedom commission – the repression cuts deep both spiritually and materially.

It has hit not only clergy and religious orders but college students, minority and marginalized populations, even tiny businesses in rural towns that relied on now often prohibited or indoors-only religious processions and patron saints’ feasts for their income.

In November, Molina said many priests were even prevented from celebrating traditional Masses in cemeteries for the Day of the Dead, an important holiday across Latin America.

Nicaragua’s congress, dominated by Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, has shuttered more than 3,000 non-governmental organisations, including Mother Teresa’s charity, creating a major gap in social services especially in rural areas. In addition to many diocesan assets, the government confiscated the prestigious University of Central America, whose Jesuit leaders had opened the doors to student protestors fleeing police and paramilitary attacks.

Despite the growing fear, many faithful continue to attend church services – where they remain available. Especially in rural areas, parishes and chapels are left without priests, though the seminaries still have students so some faithful hope they will be able to eventually replace those exiled or forced to flee.

Cinthya Benavides, lit by a beam of light from a skylight, attends Mass at St Agatha Catholic Church, a hub of Miami’s Nicaraguan community, on Sunday, 5th November, 2023, in Miami. Moves by the Nicaraguan government against young protesters and the church, where college student Benavides was active in youth ministry, pushed her to leave Nicaragua – fleeing her house with only her passport, phone and laptop as police knocked on the front door. PICTURE: AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell/File photo.

Many of the senior leaders of the Catholic Church, including Bishop Rolando Álvarez who was jailed for more than a year, were released from prison and sent overseas in negotiations with the Vatican last month. A dozen jailed priests had similarly been sent to the Vatican in October.

The Holy See has offered little public comment on the situation other than calling for dialogue. The Vatican spokesman didn’t respond when asked by the AP if Nicaragua’s highest-ranking cleric, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, is in Rome, as some Nicaraguan sources reported.

Managua’s Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez has been one of the most outspoken critics of Nicaragua’s repression from the Miami area, where he is based after the pope asked him to leave his country to avoid violent threats. In late January, he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, that he was at the Vatican to meet with Pope Francis, who had “shown his interest and love for Nicaragua.”

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Many exiles argue that while negotiating to release priests and other political prisoners marks progress, sending them into exile cannot become an acceptable practice.

“Exile cannot be normalised,” said Dolly Mora, who was forced to flee to the United States, where she’s helping campaign against the practice alongside other Nicaraguan activists. “It’s as unjust as prison. The international community cannot say it’s okay that they’re expelled.”

Without stronger protests from the Vatican and foreign governments, many exiles fear that any church representatives left in Nicaragua will be cowed into accommodating the Ortega government, which now only a minority of clergy supporters.

So they hope that continuing to call out the repression and to document each beaten-up priest, each desecrated tabernacle will eventually lead to justice.

“The dictatorship, what it wants is to completely eliminate the Catholic faith, because they haven’t succeeded in making the church kneel before them,” Molina said. “And they will not succeed.”

– With reporting by NICOLE WINFIELD in Rome, Italy


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