EXPLAINER: Tension between Nicaragua and the Catholic Church

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Nicaragua earlier this month shut down seven radio stations affiliated with the Catholic Church and opened an investigation into the bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, accusing violent actors of “inciting acts of hatred against the population.” ”

This is not the first time President Daniel Ortega has moved aggressively to silence critics of his administration. In 2018 the government raided the headquarters of a confidential newspaper led by journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, considered one of Ortega’s most prominent critics. Then, in 2021, authorities arrested seven potential presidential candidates for that year’s November election.

A look at the strained relationship between church and government is a political standoff that is now in its fifth year, with no end in sight.

Who is Daniel Ortega?

Ortega, 76, is a former guerrilla of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front who helped overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and served as the first president from 1985 until he stepped down in 1990 after being voted out.

He then lost three more elections before returning to power in 2007. He won a fourth consecutive term in the 2021 ballot, widely maligned for not facing any real opposition.

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

Under Ortega, Nicaragua has cultivated strong ties with allies Cuba and Venezuela, two staunch enemies of the US government.

How did the unrest begin?

Social Security reform in 2018 drew widespread opposition from businessmen, Catholic leaders and other sectors. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the government’s response was a crackdown by security forces and allied civilian militias that killed at least 355 people, injured nearly 2,000 and imprisoned 1,600.

Political stability has never returned.

A few months before last year’s vote, a poll found that support for five opposition candidates cast real doubt over Ortega’s re-election. Within weeks, all five were arrested, along with two other potential candidates. Officials have accused them of being responsible for the 2018 unrest, saying it amounted to a “terrorist coup” attempt backed by Washington.

“Ortega decided to suppress any chance of losing. … And that means arresting everyone,” political analyst Oscar René Vargas told The Associated Press at the time.

What role has the church played?

Nicaragua is predominantly Catholic, and the church was close to Somoza from the 1930s until the 1970s, when he distanced himself from politics after accusing the dictator of many abuses. The Church initially supported the Sandinistas after Somoza’s ouster, but that relationship eventually soured due to ideological differences. Under Ortega, Catholic leaders have often backed the country’s conservative elite.

When protests first erupted, Ortega asked the church to act as a mediator in peace talks, although they ultimately failed.

The Nicaraguan Church is showing special sympathy for the protesters and their cause. In April 2018, Managua’s cathedral sheltered student protesters and was the location to collect food and money to support them.

Figures such as Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Baez have been outspoken in their rejection of violence. Brenes called the protests justified and Baez denied any political decisions that harmed the people. Baez left the country in 2019 at the request of the Vatican, a move mourned by the opposition and celebrated by the ruling Sandinistas.

Ortega has 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, Monsignor Waldemar Stanislau Sommertag, who participated as mediator and lobbied for the release of jailed government opponents, was forced to leave the country by the Vatican for what he called an “improper decision”.

What about the latest church-state conflict?

The church radio station was shut down by the government on August 1, and police investigating Alvarez, the Matagalpa bishop, accused him of “organizing a violent group.”

Alvarez has called for deep electoral reforms to “effectively achieve the democratization of the country” and demanded the release of some 190 people he considers political prisoners. Last month, he went on a fast to protest against the atrocities against him.

Since August 3, authorities have confined Alvarez to the Episcopal complex where he lives. After six days without making public statements, he broadcast live on social media at a Mass on Thursday, attended by six priests and four lay people who are unable to leave the complex.

The Archdiocese of Managua has expressed support for Alvarez. The Latin American Catholic Bishops’ Conference condemned the “siege” of priests and bishops, the expulsion of members of religious communities, and the “continuous persecution” targeting the Nicaraguan people and the Church.

On Saturday, hundreds of Nicaraguans attended a mass with a heavy police presence after the government banned religious processions in Managua.

Church leaders announced a day earlier that national police had banned a planned procession to Our Lady of Fatima for “internal security” reasons. Instead, the Church invited the faithful to come to the cathedral in peace.

Has there been any response from the Vatican?

For nearly two weeks, the Vatican was publicly silent on the Alvarez investigation. This silence was criticized by some Latin American human rights activists and intellectuals.

On Friday, Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz, the Vatican’s permanent observer for the Organization of American States, expressed concern about the situation and asked both parties to “find ways to understand.”

Cruz’s comments came during a special session of the OAS in which its permanent council passed a resolution condemning Ortega’s government for “persecution” and “arbitrary sanctions imposed on religious organizations and those critical of the government.”

Cruz said the Holy See “desires to collaborate with those who are committed to dialogue as an indispensable tool of democracy and a guarantor of a more humane and fraternal civilization.”

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Associated Press writers Nicole Winfield in the Vatican and Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage is supported by funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc., in association with AP’s The Conversation US. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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