(CNN Spanish) — The image of Monsignor Rolando Álvarez kneeling with his hands raised outside the diocese of Matagalpa, in northern Nicaragua, while the police surround him, has already gone around the world. Relations between the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and the Ortega regime are more distant than ever. According to the report “Nicaragua: a persecuted Church”, carried out by Marta Patricia Molina, a researcher at the Pro-Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory, and distributed by the Catholic Information Agency (ACI Prensa), between April 2018 and May 2022, the least 190 attacks against the Catholic Church.
Molina’s investigation highlights that it cannot be confirmed that all of these cases are the responsibility of Ortega supporters. However, he affirms that before Daniel Ortega came to power, these types of attacks did not occur, which also increased after the beginning of the social and political crisis, in 2018, in which, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), 355 people died and hundreds more were detained, although the Government recognizes only 200 deaths, including police officers. CNN has requested a reaction from the government through the Communication and Citizenship Council, which is headed by Vice President Rosario Murillo, but so far we have not received a response.
The tensions between the Catholic Church and the Sandinistas are not new, they began decades ago. In addition, they are directly related to the history of the Central American country.
As Vilma Núñez, of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, recalls, when the Sandinistas overthrew the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship in 1979, they were close to the religious institution, since it was through Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo –at that time Archbishop of the capital–, which prevented further bloodshed, in addition to achieving the release of political prisoners.
“Cardinal Obando y Bravo was the distinguished mediator, the mediator par excellence of the political conflicts that existed in this country,” recalls Núñez.
But the closeness was short-lived. Soon, in the early 1980s, many of his actions were opposed by the Catholic Church. Núñez recalls that the participation in the Government of several priests who promoted Liberation Theology, which was not well seen by the Vatican, where they classified it as Marxist. The priests refused to resign from the new Sandinista government and the Vatican decided to disqualify them from exercising their ministry.
In this context, one of the moments that Nicaraguans remember the most occurred on March 4, 1983, the day that John Paul II arrived in Nicaragua for the first time.
Ernesto Cardenal, one of the priests of that current, was among those who welcomed the pontiff. His political position earned him a public reprimand from the pope when he arrived on Nicaraguan soil, a scene that was recorded before the cameras, and that for many was a humiliating moment for the revolutionary priest.
“When he got to where we were, where the government cabinet was, he asked Daniel Ortega to come over and say hello, so he came to say hello to everyone, and when he got to me, he gave me that public scolding, what he told me was ‘you, must regulate its situation’. I didn’t want to argue with him… what I wanted to say is that I shouldn’t be as a priest supporting or being part of a government,” Cardenal said in an interview with CNN in 2015.
But that was not the only thing that happened that day, during the mass that the pope officiated, government supporters shouted slogans such as: “popular power” and “we want peace”, constantly interrupting the Catholic rite. According to the videos of the time, the pope tried to ask them for silence and at one point he raised his voice to answer them: “the first one that wants peace is the Church.” That moment permeated Nicaraguan Catholics to this day. Years later, John Paul II remembered that first visit as “the great dark night.”
Additionally, during that time there were expulsions of priests from the country, accusations of terrorism, as well as the disclosure of an alleged sexual scandal of a priest with a woman, who later was a deserter from the Sandinista Army, said it had been a setup to discredit the religious.
Despite these disagreements, the Catholic Church was a central part of the Esquipulas II Peace Accords, which gave way to free and democratic elections in 1990, in which Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas lost power.
In the following 16 years, Ortega and his allies tried to return to power and also carried out many acts in order to ingratiate themselves with the Church. Ortega apologized for “the errors and abuses against figures of the Church in the past.”
Likewise, he decided to contract an ecclesiastical marriage with Rosario Murillo after 25 years of living together. Who officiated the mass was Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the same one who in the 1980s had a critical position against his policies and who just a few years ago – on the eve of the second elections that Ortega lost in 1996 – issued a forceful homily known popularly as “the parable of the viper” or “the viperazo”, in which he warned voters about a dying viper that should not be welcomed because, when it recovered, it would kill its savior. Many analysts considered it an implicit comparison with Ortega, in addition to an accolade to his opponent, Arnoldo Alemán, of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party, who finally won the victory.
A decade later, in 2006, Ortega managed to return to power, after three failed attempts. It only took a few years for the differences to surface again.
Months before Ortega’s first re-election, in 2011, Monsignor Silvio Báez pointed out that Nicaragua could be heading towards “a visible or covert totalitarianism”; later, several bishops said they were the object of threats.
However, the greatest tensions came in 2018 when the government tried to reform the Social Security laws, sparking protests across the country that were repressed by the government and described by Amnesty International as deplorable.
“Heavily armed parapolice groups are roaming free, accompanied by police forces, jointly committing attacks against the civilian population,” Amnesty International said in a July 2018 report.
In this context, the Catholic Church came out in defense of those who peacefully protested, in addition to being the mediator in a dialogue that sought a way out, but did not come to a successful conclusion. In July 2018, Amnesty International said that “the direct attack on figures who publicly denounce the attacks by agents of the Government of President Ortega is, without a doubt, a form of retaliation and an attempt to silence those dissenting voices.” Meanwhile, Ortega and his wife and his vice president, Rosario Murillo, began direct verbal attacks on the priests. During the last years, Ortega and Murillo have described the priests on different occasions as “terrorists”, “coup plotters” and “demons in cassocks”, among other adjectives.
These are some of the registered cases of aggression, according to the investigation “Nicaragua: a persecuted Church?”:
July 9, 2018 – Paramilitaries attack bishops and priests in Carazo.
July 13 and 14, 2018 – The attack on the Church of La Divina Misericordia, in Managua, where two people died.
April 23, 2019 – The necessary departure of Monsignor Silvio Báez, at the request of Pope Francis, since, according to Báez, the United States Embassy in Nicaragua had informed him of the existence of alleged plans to assassinate him.
July 31, 2020 – The burning of the image of the Blood of Christ with more than 380 years old, in the Cathedral of Managua.
March 2022 – The withdrawal of the approval of the Government to the apostolic nuncio, Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag.
July 6, 2022 – The expulsion of 18 Sisters of Charity to Costa Rica, without knowing the reasons.
Recently, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, five priests, three seminarians and two lay people were retained in the diocesan curia of Matagalpa. According to the Police, they allegedly tried to “organize violent groups, inciting them to carry out acts of hatred against the population, causing an atmosphere of anxiety and disorder, altering the peace and harmony of the community, with the purpose of destabilizing the State of Nicaragua and attack the constitutional authorities”.
Meanwhile, the Vatican’s representative at the OAS said that the Holy See cannot fail to express its concern about what is happening in Nicaragua and called for ways of peace to be found.