Tension rises between the government and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua

A conflict is escalating between the Nicaraguan government and the country’s Roman Catholic Church.

The government recently shut down seven of the Church’s radio stations. He also began investigating Church official Rolando Álvarez who criticized Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

Ortega accuses the man of stirring up violence “to commit acts of hatred against the population”.

This is not the first time Ortega has acted against critics of his administration. Throughout 2021, authorities arrested seven presidential candidates in the November elections of that year.

The conflict between the government and local leaders of the Roman Catholic Church is in its fifth year. Here is an overview of the history of the situation and the people involved.

Who is Daniel Ortega?

President Daniel Ortega is 76 years old and a former activist of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. He helped overthrow the country’s dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979.

Ortega first served as president from 1985 until 1990, when he was removed from office.

He returned as president in 2007. Voting last year earned him a fourth term. However, the election was widely discredited as he faced no real opposition.

FILE – Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega arrives at a rally marking the 39th anniversary of the Sandinista victory toppling the Somoza dictatorship. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga, File)

How did the troubles start?

Social security reform in 2018 led to massive protests, backed by businessmen and Catholic leaders. Nicaraguan security forces and civilian activists have killed at least 355 people in response to the activism, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has reported. Another 2,000 were injured and 1,600 imprisoned in the government offensive, he added.

However, political unrest persists in the country.

Months before last year’s vote, public opinion research found that support for five opposition candidates put Ortega’s re-election in question. Within weeks, all five were arrested, along with two other candidates.

How was the church involved?

Roman Catholicism is the main religion in Nicaragua. The Church supported the Sandinista party after Somoza’s departure. But political differences between the party and the Church damaged their relationship over time.

The Church supported the protesters and their cause. In April 2018, the Church sheltered student protesters in the capital, Managua. He also provided food and money to support them.

Senior Church officials, including Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Báez, have openly criticized the violence against political activists. Brenes said the protests were just and well-reasoned actions.

Báez rejected any political decision that would harm the people. He left the country in 2019 at the request of officials in Vatican City, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church in Italy.

Ortega responded by accusing some church officials of being part of a plot to overthrow him, calling them “terrorists”.

What about the latest church-government conflict?

Church radio stations were shut down by the government on August 1. Police investigating Álvarez accused him of “organizing violent groups”.

Álvarez called for electoral reforms for what he described as “the democratization of the country”. He also demanded the release of around 190 people whom he describes as political prisoners.

Since August 3, authorities have confined Álvarez to the church compound where he lives. On Thursday, he appeared in a social media live stream of a church service at the resort. Ten other people, also barred from leaving the compound, appeared with him on the show.

The following day, Church leaders announced that the government had banned a planned religious march for security reasons. The church instead asked its members to attend a service at the complex. Hundreds of Nicaraguans answered the call, attending the service under a heavy police presence.

FILE - Thousands gather outside Managua Cathedral during a "peace and justice" rally organized by the Catholic Church, in Managua, Nicaragua, April 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga, File)

FILE – Thousands gather outside Managua Cathedral during a ‘Peace and Justice’ rally organized by the Catholic Church, in Managua, Nicaragua, April 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga, File)

What is the Vatican’s reaction?

For nearly two weeks, the Vatican has remained publicly silent on the Álvarez investigation. Some Latin American human rights activists have criticized the Church’s silence.

Juan Antonio Cruz is the Vatican’s representative in the intergovernmental group, the Organization of American States (OAS).

Cruz said he was concerned about the situation and asked the two parties to “seek ways to come to an agreement”.

I am Dan Novak.

Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.

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