At the end of June this year the international media were puzzled at the Nicaraguan government’s decision to expel the harmless Sisters of Charity from the country. How was it possible that nuns known the world over for their peaceful and self-sacrificed work were to be expelled? The answer is very simple: in their small medical dispensaries they were treating patients injured by police attempting to put down street protests. Since the government had prevented the public hospitals from treating protesters, people’s only option was to go to those who never turn a deaf ear to the needy. And only the courage of these women was capable of alleviating the effects of the damage done. The Nicaraguan crisis had reached a still higher stage.
These serious protests go back to 2018 after the government’s decision to lower pensions by 5% and increase taxes on businesses. Then, police violence caused 300 deaths and 2000 injured, and the only place where demonstrators could find refuge was the churches. The majority of parish priests country-wide opened the doors of their churches. The report of the United Nations gave an account of the serious attack on human rights.
A bishop arrested
These two events show how the president, Daniel Ortega, has been trying since that time and still today to silence the voice of the Church. On Friday 19th August Nicaragua became news once again in all the international media. Bishop Rolando Alvarez of the diocese of Matagalpa was detained in the middle of the night in the archbishop’s palace along with several other priests and seminarians. At present he is again under house arrest.
This is how the government is using the pressure of force against one of the main voices of protest against the regime, most certainly hoping that he will leave the country just as many other priests and pastors have felt compelled to leave.
Fresh harassment against the Church
In recent weeks the government has stepped up its vigilance of parishes. Many of them now have police patrols at the door during Sunday Mass. If the priest doesn’t maintain a delicate balance when speaking about the situation in the country, the faithful are not allowed to enter. This is why in the last few days we have been seeing many photos and videos on social media in which the faithful are receiving Holy Communion through the grills of the parish compounds, under the watchful eye of the police.
This is how the government is trying to pressure priests to not denounce the abuses committed and so giving rise to causes of the social and political crisis that has been keeping the country back for the past fifteen years. This has brought about more than 150,000 refugees, most of whom are displaced in neighbouring Costa Rica.
One may well ask why the Church is playing such a big role to become the number one target of the government. Throughout the last ten years or so, political repression has been extreme, giving rise to several opposition leaders either in exile or locked up (in the last year alone they have put 18 opposition members in prison). The judiciary has given in to the government such that the separation of powers no longer exists in effect.
Nicaragua is a country of less than 7 million inhabitants and nine bishops. One of them, Mgr Silvio Baez was forced to go into exile in 2019. But government pressure affects not only the hierarchy, but in recent months has also closed down Catholic radio and television stations.
The Church has tried to play a constructive role inasmuch as this is possible in a tense and politically unstable situation, but with time has become the only public voice with enough authority to denounce the attacks on human rights. And many people have come to respect and appreciate its courage. Add to this the Catholic tradition of the country, it is obvious that the Church will be viewed favourably by the majority of the people, but not by the government.
Chronology of the crisis and repression against the Church.
- 1985-1990. Daniel Ortega is president of Nicaragua.
- January 2007. Daniel Ortega wins the elections again. The government is leftist, Sandinist and more and more Communist.
- October 2009. Nicaragua’s supreme court allows Ortega to run for election again despite the prohibition of the constitution. The separation of powers is increasingly undermined.
- April 2018. Ortega reduces pensions by 5% and increases contributions from businesses and workers. Demonstrations and social protests begin, violently repressed by the regime. Priests throughout the country open the doors of the churches to shelter the demonstrators being attacked by the police and paramilitary.
- June 2018. The leading bishops of the country take the Blessed Sacrament in procession among the crowds, thanks to which there is no police massacre. The bishops ask the government to bring forward the elections to bring peace among the population after they had been rigged in 2017.
- July 2018. Government supporters harass bishop Silvio Baez, who is slightly injured, when he attempts to denounce the violence caused by the country’s security forces.
- August 2018. The United Nations publishes a report on the situation of the country. It points out the grave crisis of human rights that gave rise to the social protests that left about 300 dead and 2000 injured.
- December 2018. The United States imposes economic sanctions.
- April 2019. Bishop Silvio Baez goes into exile at the request of Pope Francis, following government pressure on the Holy See.
- July 2020. Managua cathedral is attacked and set on fire.
- November 2021. Ortega wins very rigged elections. Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Russia are the only countries which accept the results without question.
- March 2022. The government expels the Nuncio.
- May 2022. The government closes Canal 51, the property of the Episcopal Conference.
- June 2022. The government bans more than a hundred NGO’s, both religious and secular.
- June 2022. The Missionaries of Charity are expelled. The reason officially given is that they were receiving donations from abroad and the money was being used to buy armaments and destabilise the country. No proofs were given.
- July and August 2022. Several priests are arrested. The government closes 13 Catholic radio stations.
- Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, bishop of Matagalpa and the main critic of the lack of human rights is arrested in his residence together with other priests and seminarians.
- The government accuses Catholic organizations of disobeying the law against Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism. The reason given is that they aid the opposers of the regime and so foment divisions, protests, violence and terrorism against the state.
- Successive reports of the United Nations show more repression and lack of freedoms in Nicaragua.
- The Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, Rodrigo Guerra, explains that a flurry of diplomatic activity is going on under the careful eye of the Holy See.