Tension mounts between the Nicaraguan government and the Catholic Church

MEXICO CITY — Earlier this month, Nicaragua shut down seven radio stations owned by the Catholic Church and launched an investigation into the Bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, accusing him of inciting violent actors” to commit acts of hatred against the population”.

This is not the first time President Daniel Ortega has taken aggressive steps to silence critics of his administration. In 2018, the government raided the newspaper’s headquarters Confidentialled by journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, considered one of Ortega’s most prominent critics.

Then, throughout 2021, authorities arrested seven potential presidential candidates for the November elections of that year.

Pope Francis on August 21 expressed concern over the situation in Nicaragua.

Calling for “an open and sincere dialogue,” the pontiff made his first public comment on the raid on Alvarez’s residence.

The detention of Alvarez and an undetermined number of priests came amid rising tensions between the Church and a government increasingly intolerant of dissent.

Francis told the thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square for his usual Sunday lunchtime remarks that he was closely following events “of concern and sorrow” in Nicaragua that involve “people and institutions”. He did not mention the detentions.

“I would like to express my conviction and my hope that through an open and sincere dialogue, we can still find the bases of a respectful and peaceful coexistence,” the pope said.

National police confirmed the detentions, saying the operation was carried out to allow “the citizens and families of Matagalpa to return to normality”. He did not cite specific charges.

Álvarez was held in a Managua home and allowed to meet with relatives and Brenes, according to the police statement. The police did not name the priests who were arrested.

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

Who is Daniel Ortega?

Ortega, 76, is a former guerrilla in the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front who helped overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and served as president for the first time from 1985 until he left office in 1990 after being elected.

He lost three more elections thereafter before returning to power in 2007. He won a fourth consecutive term in the 2021 ballot, which is largely discredited as he faced no real opposition.

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

Under Ortega, Nicaragua has cultivated close ties with its allies Cuba and Venezuela, two ardent enemies of the US government.

How did the troubles start?

A social security reform in 2018 sparked massive protests backed by businesspeople, Catholic leaders and other sectors.

The government’s response was a crackdown by security forces and allied civilian militias in which at least 355 people were killed, around 2,000 injured and 1,600 imprisoned, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Political stability never fully returned.

Months before last year’s vote, a poll found support for five opposition candidates cast doubt on Ortega’s re-election. Within weeks, all five were arrested, along with two other potential candidates.

Authorities accused them of being responsible for the 2018 unrest, saying it amounted to an attempted “terrorist coup” allegedly backed by Washington.

“Ortega has decided to remove 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 Somoza from the 1930s to the 1970s, when it distanced itself from politics after numerous abuses attributed to the dictatorship.

The church initially supported the Sandinistas after Somoza was ousted, but this relationship frayed over time due to ideological differences.

Under Ortega, Catholic leaders often supported the country’s conservative elite.

When the protests first broke out, Ortega asked the church to mediate the peace talks, though they ultimately fell through.

The Nicaraguan church has been particularly sympathetic to the protesters and their cause. In April 2018, the Cathedral of Managua housed student protesters and was a place to collect food and money to support them.

Figures such as Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Báez have openly rejected the violence.

Brenes called the protests justified and Báez rejected any political decision that would harm the people.

Báez left the country in 2019 at the behest of the Vatican, a move lamented by the opposition and celebrated by the ruling Sandinistas.

Ortega responded by accusing some bishops of being part of a plot to overthrow him and calling them “terrorists.”

In March, the papal nuncio in Managua, Bishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, who participated as a mediator and pushed for the release of imprisoned government opponents, was forced by Ortega’s administration to leave the country in what the Vatican called it an “unwarranted decision”.

What about the latest conflict between Church and State?

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 called for deep electoral reform to “effectively achieve the democratization of the country” and also demanded the release of some 190 people he considers political prisoners.

Last month, he held a fast to protest what he called the persecution against him.

Since August 3, the authorities have confined Álvarez to the episcopal complex where he resides. After six days without making public statements, he reappeared in a social media live stream during a mass, accompanied by six priests and four lay people who also cannot leave the compound.

The Archdiocese of Managua has expressed support for Álvarez. The Latin American Catholic Bishops’ Conference denounced what it called a “siege” of priests and bishops, the expulsion of members of religious communities and the “constant harassment” of the people and Church of Nicaragua .

On Saturday, hundreds of Nicaraguans attended mass under a 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 for Our Lady of Fatima for “internal security” reasons. Instead, the church called on worshipers to come peacefully to the cathedral.

What is the Vatican’s response?

For nearly two weeks, the Vatican has remained publicly silent on the Álvarez investigation. The silence has drawn criticism from some Latin American human rights activists and intellectuals.

On August 12, Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the Organization of American States, expressed concern about the situation and asked the two parties to “seek ways to come to an understanding.” Gabriela Selser and Maria Teresa Hernandez/Associated Press

Picture credits: PA

Jerry B. Hatch