In a risky change of strategy, embattled President Daniel Ortega has backed off from a Catholic Church-mediated dialogue with his opposition and launched a brutal attack on Catholic bishops in sharp language that many say gives tacit approval for his followers to desecrate churches and rough up clergy.
Some priests have moved temporarily away from their parishes.
Nicaragua’s top prelate, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, was shoved, punched and harassed earlier this month and another church leader was cut on the forearm with a knife in a provincial town where hooded Ortega supporters, some of them armed, mobbed the clerics.
At least seven churches have suffered vandalism, including a chapel in Jinotega, center of a northern coffee-growing region, that was hit Friday night. More seriously, hooded gunmen strafed a church in Managua earlier this month in a prolonged siege against unarmed student protesters who had sought sanctuary inside.
Pope Francis and bishops across Latin America view the attacks with mounting concern.
On Sunday, in response to a request from the Council of Latin American Bishops, priests around the hemisphere led the faithful in a day of prayer to express solidarity with Catholics in Nicaragua. The bishops’ council asked for the action “in the face of the dramatic and painful social and political crisis currently experienced there.”
Ortega was initially keen on having Catholic bishops serve as mediators to deal with a civilian uprising that exploded against his government in late April, and now enters its fourth month. The unrest has taken at least 280 lives, most of them at the hands of police or informal government-backed gunmen wearing hoods and masks.
But as bishops grew more vocal in condemning violence by the armed militias, Ortega has tried to undercut the Catholic Church, seeing it as a threat to his continued rule.
“The government interpreted this as the Church turning in favor of the protests,”said Óscar René Vargas, a political analyst and one-time co-founder of the ruling Sandinista Front who is critical of Ortega’s government.
Ortega, a former leftist guerrilla leader, lashed out at the Church hierarchy in a July 19 Revolution Day speech before tens of thousands of his followers, saying the bishops were helping scheme for his ouster.
“I thought they were mediators, but no, they are beholden to the coup plotters. They are part of the plan of the coup plotters,” Ortega said.
“As Christians, we are obligated to … ask the bishops to change, for the love of God, and not fuel the satanic, murderous, coup mongering sect,” Ortega said.
He said “many temples” were being used “to store weapons, to store bombs,” offering no evidence and making a clear attempt to amp up pressure on the Church, which has declared that Nicaraguans have a right to peaceful protest.
Ortega plays a risky strategy by turning on the Church, said Carlos Tünnermann, a former diplomat who is part of the opposition negotiating team in a stalled national dialogue.
“The most respected and credible institution in this country is the Episcopal Conference,which is made up of the bishops. It is the only institution in the country that can take on the role of mediator,” Tünnermann said.
Perhaps the greatest symbol of Ortega’s assault on Catholicism is the Divine Mercy Catholic Church in Managua, which masked gunmen raked with sustained gunfire on the night of July 13, and stretching into the early morning of July 14, as more than 100 student protesters hunkered down inside the compound, many lying on the floor. Two people were killed.
“You’d have to count all the pockmarks to see how many shots they fired. It’s incalculable,”said Erick Alvarado Cole, a vicar at the church, as he showed a visitor the shattered windows and bullet-riddled walls of the church.
The Nicaraguan bishops’ conference is to meet later this week to decide whether to continue its mediation role given Ortega’s sharp turn against the church.
One analyst said Ortega is instigating a rupture to derail the political talks.
“This is a frontal attack on the church, and if you’re attacking this way it’s because you don’t want to continue the dialogue,” said José Luis Rocha, a sociologist and frequent contributor to Envío, a Jesuit-run publication.
The recent attacks include the July 16 looting of the offices of the Catholic charity Caritas in the city of Sébaco, 60 miles north of Managua. Witnesses told local reporters said the attackers wore masks and arrived aboard motorcycles, setting the building ablaze before speeding away.
Vandals Friday night broke into Our Lady of Carmen church in Jinotega, defecated on the floor, stole a sacrament receptacle and sound equipment, and upended furniture, according to a tweet by Managua’s auxiliary bishop, a statement from the local diocese and a news report in La Prensa.
Some veteran parish priests have grown uneasy as Ortega amps up his attacks on the Church, inciting action against clerics.
“Fanaticism is very dangerous,” said a veteran priest, asking that his name not be used because he feared retribution. For the moment, he remains in Managua rather than returning to his provincial parish.
“I think it’s more intimidation than anything. It could be a group of fanatics that throw rocks at you, that threaten you,” he said. “Are they looking to kill me? I don’t think so. But intimidate me, give me a beating, sabotage my car so I get in an accident — that type of thing could happen.”
Ortega’s relations with the Nicaraguan church have zigzagged over the years. As leader during the Sandinista Front rule 1979-1990, Ortega tolerated the church and welcomed activist priests who followed Liberation Theology, a movement that emphasizes concern for the poor.
On re-taking office in 2007, Ortega sought to co-opt traditional Catholics and ward off any confrontation with the church leadership. His party slogan was “Christianity, Socialism, Solidarity.” He outlawed abortion and doled out generous assistance to priests.
His wife, Rosario Murillo, who became his vice president last year, uses frequent religious terminology in near-daily television broadcasts.
“They have ‘God’ on their lips all the time,” said Rocha, the sociologist.