61. Political backlash against the Church: Nicaragua
61. Political backlash against the Church: Nicaragua

61. Political backlash against the Church: Nicaragua

Last week’s post ended the discussion on the Philippines. The trending news is the Daniel Ortega-led government clampdown on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua. As this is a developing story, today’s post is based on events until August 29.

Nicaragua is a country in Latin America and has long been a Catholic country before evangelical churches began springing up. Current statistics show that around 45 percent are Catholics, about 41 percent are Evangelicals and other Christian denominations, and 14 percent are non-religious[1].

The Church has been an influential institution. It was close to the Somoza family, the family whose members ruled as dictators from 1937 to 1979. The Church distanced itself from politics in the 1970s due to abuses attributed to Somozas’ rule. Daniel Ortega led the Sandinista National Liberation Front that overthrew the Somozas. The Church initially supported the Sandinistas, but gradually withdrew over ideological differences. Ortega served as president from 1985 to 1990 and from 2007 to date.

The current crisis began in 2018 when a social security reform triggered large protests. Ortega’s government responded with a crackdown by security forces and civilian militias leading to the death of over 350 people, injuries to about 2,000, and imprisonment of 1,600. The Catholic Church strongly supported the protests. For instance, in April 2018, the cathedral in the country’s capital, Managua, served as a shelter and a food and money collection point for student demonstrators.

Catholic leaders condemned the violence and Ortega invited the Church to mediate in peace talks. This ultimately failed. With most strong opposition voices imprisoned or having escaped to another country, Daniel Ortega extended his clampdown on bishops and priests repeatedly calling them “demons in cassocks,” “terrorists” and “coup plotters.”

In 2019, the Vatican requested the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Bàez to leave the country. This request saddened the opposition but was celebrated by the ruling party. In March 2022, Ortega declared the papal nuncio in Nicaragua Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, “a persona non-grata” and expelled him from the country, basically severing the diplomatic ties between Nicaragua and the Holy See. The Holy See responded with surprise and regret.

In April 2022, the government approved measures which excluded the Jesuit-owned Central American University from government funding. Interestingly, Daniel Ortega and three of his children attended this university. On June 29 2022, the government shut down 101 non-governmental organisations including the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In July, the nuns were expelled from the country.

On 1 August 2022, the government shut down five Catholic radio stations. The government confined Bishop Roland Àlvarez to his residence for two weeks along with five priests, a seminarian, and a cameraman for a religious television channel. On 20 August, they were arrested—the bishop was put under house arrest while the others were sent to a prison notorious for torturing opposition voices. On 24 August, a day after the priests of the diocese of Estelì released a statement calling on the government to convert, to allow them to work in peace and release their bishop, the government shut down the radio station of the diocese. These are difficult times for the Church in Nicaragua as there have been more than 190 attacks against the Catholic Church (clergy, laity, places of worship, and educational centres) since 2018.

So far, the Holy See has been largely silent. During his customary Sunday speech on August 21, Pope Francis said:

“I am closely following, with worry and sorrow, the situation created in Nicaragua, and which involves people and institutions. I want to express my conviction and my wish that through an open and sincere dialogue they can find the basis for a respectful and peaceful coexistence,” he added. “Let us ask the Lord, through the intercession of Our Lady Most Pure, that he inspire such concrete will in the hearts of all.”[2]

Interestingly, the pope did not mention the arrest of the bishop. There are some points to note. First, the Nicaraguan government intensified its crackdown on the Catholic Church only when it had expelled the Nuncio from the country and effectively severed diplomatic ties with the Holy See. This is instructive on the need to safeguard this diplomatic relationship. Second, many episcopal conferences and governments have condemned the recent attack on the Church, particularly on the bishop, yet the Holy See is largely silent on it and the pope carefully chose his words.

Does it mean that the Holy See is not doing anything? No. Pope Francis is from Argentina, so he understands Latin American politics. The “silence” is strategic so as not to further worsen the situation given that diplomatic ties have been severed. Nevertheless, some background negotiations will be going on.

The takeaway message is this:

If the Catholic Church is treated this way in a Catholic country and by a Catholic president, what happens if the Catholic Church in Nigeria publicly supports a candidate and a non-Christian wins the election and decides to revenge?

Ka Chineke mezie okwu🙏🏾


[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1067123/nicaragua-religion-affiliation-share-type/

[2] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/252084/pope-francis-calls-for-peaceful-coexistence-in-nicaragua

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