Q24N (BBC Mundo) “Don’t mention my name or my religious community.”
It is the first thing he notices before speaking with BBC Mundo Jaime, a Nicaraguan who has belonged to the Catholic Church for 24 years and who asks that we identify him with a fictitious name.
“Being a Catholic in Nicaragua, in this time of persecution, is a risk.”
The conversation, which is carried out through the Telegram messaging app for security reasons, takes place days before what will be the first Holy Week in Nicaragua without religious processions in public spaces, in one more act of the dispute between the government of President Daniel Ortega with the Catholic Church.
This was revealed by the bishop of the Nicaraguan diocese of León and Chinandega, Socrates René Sandigo, through an audio that was sent to the priests and that was published by the local press a few weeks ago:
“Many have been told by the authority that the Stations of the Cross can only be done internally or in the atrium of the church. Not yet for others. Therefore, it is preferable that we all do the Stations of the Cross better inside the temple or in the atrium to that we maintain that communion,” guided Sandigo.
An ecclesiastical source from the Archdiocese of Managua told the newspaper La Prensa that, after the mass on Ash Wednesday in February, the police authorities communicated “that there was no permission for security reasons to do the Stations of the Cross.”
Just a few days before, Ortega – who has held power for 14 years – had attacked the clergy, calling it a “mafia” and an anti-democratic organization.
His words were produced in rejection of the statements of Pope Francis, who regretted the 26-year prison sentence against Monsignor Rolando Álvarez and called for a “sincere search” for peace by political actors in Nicaragua.
“If we are going to talk about democracy (…), the people should first elect the priests of the town, then the bishops, the cardinals, and there would have to be a vote in the Catholic people everywhere so that the pope is also elected by direct vote of the people,” Ortega said. “Let the people decide and not the mafia that is organized in the Vatican!” He emphasized.
The massive presence of parishioners in the last acts of Ash Wednesday could have triggered the ban. That February 22, the main churches were packed in a gesture for the defense of Monsignor Álvarez.
“The regime thought it had defeated the Catholic Church after the conviction against Monsignor Álvarez. But that day the people went out without fear to live their mass, in a demonstration that the church is stronger than ever. That scared the regime and that’s why he made the decision to ban the processions”, says Jaime.
This same week the Nicaraguan media reported the siege suffered against the people who wanted to carry out the procession of the Cirineos.
Traditionally, Holy Week in Nicaragua has been lived as a “great festival of faith” that begins on Palm Sunday with the procession of the image of Christ on the donkey. It includes celebrations with children and young people, the party for the renewal of priestly vows and closes with the festivities on Easter Sunday. Now, any manifestation of faith outside the churches is prohibited.
“Not letting us demonstrate in processions is something difficult for people of faith, because it has great spiritual meaning. For me it is a violation of freedom of belief. What we will have now will be a Holy Week similar to the one we lived in the times of the covid, where homes became temples. Faith is the only space of freedom we have left in Nicaragua,” explains Jaime.
Against the church
The tension between the Ortega government and the Catholic Church skyrocketed in 2018, when the Sandinista leader and the vice president, his wife Rosario Murillo, requested the mediation of members of the clergy in the massive revolt that began on April 18 of that year.
What began as a claim against the reforms to the social security system unleashed a wave of demonstrations against Ortega’s rule that lasted six months and left more than 300 dead.
During that time, several organizations denounced excesses in the repression of the public force and the violation of human rights by a government, which accused the opposition of seeking a “coup d’état.”
However, the ecclesiastical institution refused to take sides with the official side. Rather, he called for a national dialogue and rejected the violence in the protests. Some priests even gave refuge in their churches to protesters fleeing police repression. An act that was considered by Ortega as a betrayal.
“I know who was behind the maneuvers, encouraging the crimes that, due to principles as Christians, as pastors, they should totally reject,” the president said then. “They are not at all Christian and act with a terrorist, criminal mentality, happily joining the coup.”
What followed next was a chain of attacks that cornered the church. The closure of eight Catholic stations and the closure of three television channels were ordered. The apostolic nuncio, the diplomatic representative of the Holy See, was expelled. The legal personality of the Association of the Missionaries of Charity was annulled, forcing the nuns of Mother Teresa to leave the country. In the end, some 60 religious fled or were expelled from Nicaragua.
“Why so afraid of Ortega towards the church? Because of the social impact that he has had on the citizenry” clarifies Jaime. “Since the 2018 crisis, it has been the prophetic voice in the face of so much injustice. The church has been an intermediary of material and spiritual aid and has accompanied the processes of human rights violations. It has not bowed to political power.”
The dissident pastor
The highest point of tension came with the arrest of Monsignor Rolando Álvarez in December of last year. He is accused of “conspiracy and propagation of false news through information technology to the detriment of the State and Nicaraguan society.”
The bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa had become one of the most critical voices within the Nicaraguan Catholic hierarchy. In his homilies, he accused the National Police of committing human rights violations and the presidential couple of acts of religious persecution and abuse of power.
He was the victim of police harassment, according to what he denounced on several occasions. Until August 4, 2022, he was prevented from going out on the street with the Blessed Sacrament in his hands and defiance of the government. “The devil trembles at prayer (…) Evil is drowning, shaken by the prayer of a people,” he prayed in front of the riot police. Two weeks later, he was arrested.
His name was on the list of the 222 opponents who were exiled to Washington on February 9. However, at the last moment Álvarez refused to leave Nicaragua. In retaliation, a court sentenced him the following day in an express trial to 26 years in prison “for treason” among other crimes.
“What we have is arrogant behavior from someone who considers himself the head of the church in Nicaragua, the leader of the Latin American church. And he must think that he is about to run for the position of His Holiness the Pope. He is deranged,” he said. Ortega on Alvarez.
Until then, the Vatican had made no reference to the attacks on the Catholic institution in Nicaragua. Until on March 10 Pope Francis alluded to the situation in an interview in which he described the Ortega government as a “rude dictatorship.”
“There we have an imprisoned bishop, a very serious, very capable man. He wanted to give his testimony and did not accept exile (…) It is something that is outside of what we are experiencing, it is as if he were bringing the communist dictatorship from 1917 or the Hitlerite of 1935, bringing the same ones here… They are a type of rude dictatorships,” Francisco said.
In response, Nicaragua announced on March 12 the immediate severance of diplomatic relations with the Holy See.
The tensions between the Catholic Church and the Sandinismo led by Ortega are longstanding. At first, relations were close, because the clergy mediated when members of the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) overthrew the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and obtained the release of political prisoners.
But it didn’t last long. In the early 1980s, the Catholic Church began to denounce the arbitrariness of the government junta, chaired by Ortega. Then the attacks broke out. Some still remember the first visit of Pope John Paul II to Nicaragua in March 1983, which ended up becoming a scene of confrontation when government supporters desecrated the mass celebrated by the pontiff.
“The Sandinistas have always felt singled out by the church,” Martha Patricia Molina, a lawyer and researcher for the report “Nicaragua: a persecuted church,” told BBC Mundo.
“However, there are some differences with respect to those early years. At that time, priests were not criminalized, they were not fabricated crimes or imprisoned. Much less were their nationality taken away,” he says about the loss of citizenship. ordered against opponents who were sent into exile in February.
“The government has been eradicating democratic spaces. The church is the only bastion that remains, since the clergy has not been willing to adulate them,” says Molina, a critic of Ortega. “That is why they insist on giving it another blow to weaken it. But not They are going to eliminate the people’s faith”.
The risk of being Catholic
Nicaragua is a majority Catholic country. At least 45% of the population professes that religion. The rest identify themselves as evangelicals and other beliefs, according to Molina. However, the Catholic Church appears as one of the institutions with the greatest credibility among Nicaraguans, especially after the events of 2018.
That is why parishioners have become targets of intimidation, denounces Jaime.
“Each community or neighborhood has its CPC (Citizen Power Council) that keeps track of the names and surnames of committed Catholics. Being on these lists entails obstacles to carry out some civil procedures, such as driver’s licenses, IDs. Or it implies greater risks like jail or exile,” he says.
This condemnation affects everyone who is related to the Catholic Church, says Jaime. The government even prohibited private companies from providing services to the religious, according to him, under penalty of taking away their permits or imposing high fines. “A few weeks ago, we did an activity in the church and nobody wanted to rent us buses to transport the participants. They are threatened,” he says.
Faced with this situation, the atmosphere within the churches in Nicaragua has ceased to be one of recollection. For some time now, it has become tense in the presence of plainclothes police who come to inform their superiors of any act considered subversive.
“The priests are prohibited from mentioning the name of Monsignor Rolando Álvarez in the homilies. These officials are in charge of recording what is said in the ceremony. And they take photos of the participants to have files in case of any accusation.”
That pressure has had its effects. Some parishioners have stopped attending Mass out of fear, according to Jaime. And he does not doubt that many will prefer to stay at home during religious festivities.
Despite his fear, he has decided to live Holy Week as long as he can.
“I am going to participate in the activities inside the churches, just as the priests indicate,” he says. The programming includes the adoration of the Holy Cross on Thursday; the chrism mass, where the priests renew their vows; the penitential viacrusis; reading the seven words; the holy burial on Good Friday; the Easter Vigil on Saturday and the Resurrection Mass on Sunday.
Some Holy Week liturgical acts could be canceled at the last minute, especially after the government decided to break relations with the Vatican. Likewise, Jaime has planned to comply with some family practices, such as reading the word, praying the rosary, fasting and meditating.
“I will live Holy Week with a lot of faith and hope,” he assures.
“They have taken away my last physical space of freedom, but not spiritually or mentally. In times of persecution, the church is strengthened. For people of faith it is a privilege to belong to an organization that has accompanied its people in such a courageous way. Every attack against the church represents, in the end, a defeat for this government.”
Translated and adapted from BBC Mundo. Read the original in Spanish here.