The history behind the persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua

Nicaragua bishop alvarez Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, is monitored by police in early August 2022. | Photo credit: Diocese of Matagalpa

A bishop under house arrest, priests harassed by the police, the Missionaries of Charity expelled, and numerous restrictions on worship: this is the situation that the Catholic Church in Nicaragua is experiencing today under the current government of President Daniel Ortega.

But how did the Central American country come to such a crisis?

This story begins in 1979 with the overthrow of the dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty and the first Sandinista government that led Nicaragua from then until 1990. And 40 years later, the hostilities and persecutions repeat themselves.

On July 19, 1979, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), a leftist guerrilla group, overthrew Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third and last member of the so-called Somocista dynasty — following his father, Anastasio Somoza García, and his brother, Luis Somoza Debayle — who had ruled the country since 1937.

In November 1979, the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference published a pastoral letter titled “Christian Commitment for a New Nicaragua” that, among other things, saw this “revolutionary process” as an opportunity for the country and called on the population to make the necessary sacrifices and to experience a “profound conversion of heart.”

The bishops also called for “ample space for freedom allowing it (the Church) to carry out its apostolic work without interference.”

Shortly after Somoza’s fall, a five-member National Reconstruction Governing Junta was established: three from the FSLN and two independents, including Violeta Chamorro (widow of Pedro Chamorro, director of the newspaper La Prensa, who was assassinated by Somoza) and Alfonso Robelo. The coordinator was Daniel Ortega.

Violeta Chamorro resigned from the Junta in April 1980 due to the socialist direction the FSLN was taking and the influence of Cuba in the government. Robelo resigned for the same reasons and later joined the political directorate of the Nicaraguan Resistance (called the “Contras” for “counterrevolutionaries”) that, financed by the United States, fought a civil war with the Sandinistas throughout the decade.

The Junta governed Nicaragua until 1985 and handed over power to Ortega, who had won the 1984 presidential elections with the FSLN, which had become a political party.

Priests in the government and the intervention of John Paul II

With the inauguration of the Junta, three well-known priests who promoted Marxist liberation theology assumed positions in the Sandinista government: Miguel D’Escoto was minister of foreign affairs (1979-1990); Ernesto Cardenal was minister of culture (1979-1987); and Edgar Parrales was vice minister deputy director general of the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (1979-1980), minister of social welfare (1980-1982) and Nicaraguan ambassador to the Organization of American States (1982-1986).

The participation of these priests in the government caused tensions with the bishops. Although the episcopate initially authorized this participation, in January 1980 the bishops’ conference decided that they could no longer be part of the Sandinista government.

In April of that year, Pope John Paul II received the Nicaraguan bishops at the Vatican and told them in an address that “an atheist ideology cannot be the guiding instrument of the effort to promote social justice, because it deprives man of his freedom, of spiritual inspiration, and of the strength to love his brother, which has its most solid and operative foundation in the love of God.”

A few weeks later, the bishops asked the priests to resign from their positions in the Sandinista government, but they refused.

In February 1984, John Paul II suspended ad divinis the three priests and Father Fernando Cardenal, Ernesto’s brother, who also participated in the Ortega regime. From that year until 1990, Fernando Cardenal was minister of education.

A courageous archbishop and an ambushed priest

During the first Sandinista period, one of the members of the Catholic Church who stood out for his denunciations of human-rights violations was the archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo (1926-2018), whom John Paul II made a cardinal in 1985.

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The archbishop was already known for denouncing human-rights violations during the Somoza dictatorship and didn’t remain silent in the face of the abuses of the Ortega regime.

In addition, his role was decisive in preventing the spread of the so-called “people’s church” promoted by priests and religious subscribing to Marxist liberation theology.

The FSLN government retaliated and targeted prominent pastors. In August 1982, agents from the regime dressed as police officers arrested Father Bismarck Carballo, who was then a spokesman for the Church and the director of a Catholic radio station.

The agents entered a house where the priest was and fabricated an alleged sexual scandal with a woman. They stripped him naked, took him out on the street, and published the false story in all the official media.

In February 1986, the U.S. secretary of state published the testimony of former Sandinista lieutenant Álvaro Baldizón Avilés, a defector who stated that the scandal involving Carballo was staged by the Ortega regime.

Another of Ortega’s outrages against the Church was the expulsion of 10 foreign priests in July 1984. The priests were accused of violating national laws and participating in anti-government activities for attending a march called by Obando y Bravo in solidarity with Father Luis Amado Peña, a priest accused of terrorism by the regime.

The role of the Church in the peace agreement

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In the 1980s, clashes between the FSLN and the resistance or the “Contras” left tens of thousands dead. On Aug. 7, 1987, the Esquipulas II Peace Accord was signed in Guatemala to end the civil war in Nicaragua and achieve a “lasting peace” in Central America. The document called for free multiparty elections and the establishment of a National Reconciliation Commission.

Obando y Bravo and the then auxiliary bishop of Managua, Bosco Vivas Robelo, participated in this commission.

Ortega ran for president in the February 1990 elections and was defeated by Violeta Chamorro. Ortega ran again unsuccessfully in 1996 and 2001.

On Oct. 18, 1996, two days before the elections, Obando y Bravo told a story — which the press called “the parable of the viper” — exhorting Nicaraguans to be prudent and think about what is best for the country.

Ortega makes peace with the Catholic Church

After losing the elections, Ortega — who was then leading the opposition — apparently made peace with the Catholic Church. In July 2003, the former guerrilla apologized for the “excesses” and “errors” of his government against Catholics in the 1980s.

In June 2004, Ortega proposed nominating Obando y Bravo for the Nobel Peace Prize, “in recognition of his struggle for national reconciliation” and the signing of the peace accords that ended the civil war.

That month, Obando y Bravo accepted Ortega’s request to offer the Sandinista-sponsored Mass for the thousands of dead in the civil war.

In July 2004, as part of the 25th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution, Ortega publicly apologized for the abuses against the Catholic Church during his first government and explicitly referred to Carballo.

Ortega returns to power in 2007

Ortega won the 2006 elections with 38% of the vote thanks to an electoral reform that lowered the percentage to win the presidency to 35% of the vote if there is a 5% margin over second place.

In February 2007, Ortega invited Obando y Bravo, then archbishop emeritus of Managua and 81 years old, to preside over the National Council for Reconciliation and Peace created by his new government. The cardinal accepted the position on a “personal basis” and had the support of the episcopate.

However, in September 2008, the bishop of Matagalpa, Jorge Solórzano, warned that while relations with the government seemed friendly, measures against the work of the Church were anticipated, such as the elimination of state subsidies for Catholic schools. 

In November of that year, violence broke out again in the country after allegations of fraud in the municipal elections that gave 62% of the mayor’s offices throughout the country to the FSLN. The bishops made a strong call for peace.

Ortega attacks the Catholic Church again

In early 2009, tensions resumed between the Sandinista government and the Catholic Church. At the end of April, an email from the Nicaraguan presidency sent a document to the media that described the Nicaraguan bishops as corrupt, prompting a formal reaction from the episcopate.

In June, Ortega tried to silence the criticism that several bishops made about his government by calling them to pray instead of commenting on politics. The prelates responded that it’s not enough to pray if one doesn’t work for justice.

In April 2010, when the possibility of Ortega running for re-election in 2011 was being debated, the bishops called on the country to dialogue and denounced the “acts of transgression” against the constitution that specifically prohibited successive presidential terms.

However, the Supreme Court of Justice, with Sandinista members, allowed Ortega to run in the elections held on Nov. 6, 2011.

In this context, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio José Báez, warned that Nicaragua was on the way “to a visible or covert totalitarianism” and requested the presence of international observers.

The secretary of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Sócrates René Sandigo, said that with this candidacy, the country lacked the rule of law and that distrust among the population had grown.

Almost a month before the elections, several bishops reported receiving threats.

The Sandinista leader won the elections with more than 62% of the votes cast, amid allegations of fraud. The Carter Center report said that, according to the assessments of national and international observers, the elections “were not transparent.”

In a statement, the bishops said that the legitimacy of the results was “totally questionable.”

Catholic Church opposes indefinite re-election

After his third term, in which there was also friction with the bishops, Ortega decided to run for a fourth term.

In January 2014, the Sandinista majority in the National Assembly approved the constitutional amendment to allow Ortega’s indefinite re-election, which the bishops criticized. The legislature also gave the presidency the power to issue decrees with the force of law.

In June 2016, the episcopate called on Ortega to guarantee that the Nov. 6 elections would be transparent and with the presence of national and foreign observers.

However, Ortega won the elections again under allegations of fraud.

‘We are a persecuted Church’

The current crisis in Nicaragua began in April 2018, during Ortega’s fourth term. The reform of the health and pension system triggered numerous protests throughout the country, which were violently repressed by the police and during which numerous bishops and priests received death threats.

In this context, the archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes; his auxiliary, Bishop Silvio José Báez; and the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Somertag, were beaten by a pro-government mob while making a pastoral visit to the Minor Basilica of St. Sebastian in Diriamba, 25 miles from the capital.

On July 13, 2018, police and paramilitaries shot up Divine Mercy parish in Managua, where young people who had protested against the regime had taken refuge.

Báez condemned the “criminal repression” of civilians on Twitter and asked the international community not to be indifferent. The prelate said that “we are already beginning to be a persecuted Church.”

Shortly after, the Catholic Church agreed to participate once again as a mediator in the national talks to resolve the crisis that had already left hundreds dead, but the negotiations were suspended.

In 2019 there was another attempt at talks between the government and the opposition, but this time the Nicaraguan Bishops’ Conference declined to participate and asked that “the laity be the ones who directly assume responsibility” for this process.

In March 2019, Pope Francis received Báez in a private audience at the Vatican. Two weeks later, Brenes reported that the pontiff asked Báez to move to Rome. Currently the bishop resides in the United States.

A year later, on July 31, 2020, one of the most symbolic attacks against the Church occurred. An unidentified individual entered one of the chapels inside the Managua Cathedral and threw a firebomb that destroyed the famous image of the Blood of Christ, a 382-year-old crucifix beloved by Nicaraguans.

When the presidential elections were held on Nov. 7, 2021, the main opposition candidates had already been imprisoned. Days before, the bishops’ conference said that each citizen should act considering what was the most just and best for the country.

It is estimated that absenteeism was 81.5%. The bishop of León, René Sándigo, was the only prelate who went to the polls. Ortega was re-elected for the fourth consecutive time with 75% of the votes.

A bishop under house arrest

After ordering the dissolution of 100 NGOs, the expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity and the closure of several Catholic media outlets, the government now has the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, one of its strongest critics, in its sights.

Since Aug. 4, the prelate has been kept under house arrest at the chancery along with five priests, two seminarians, and three lay people.

That day, when the Church celebrated the feast of St. John Mary Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, Álvarez came outside the chancery with the Blessed Sacrament in a monstrance and denounced that the police sent by Ortega wouldn’t let his priests and collaborators enter his chapel to celebrate Mass.

After almost an hour of calling for dialogue and respect for the Catholic Church, the prelate returned inside the chancery and celebrated the Eucharist with his assistants.

However, that same afternoon, riot police blocked access to the chancery and would not let Álvarez, who had invited the faithful to go to the Matagalpa cathedral to celebrate the holy hour and Mass, leave the building.

The Sandinista regime has threatened to imprison the bishop, who has received expressions of solidarity only from the local episcopate and from a few other countries.

Attorney Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, a member of the Pro-Transparency and Anti-Corruption Observatory, recently published an investigation titled “Nicaragua: a Persecuted Church? (2018-2022),” which documents 190 attacks and desecrations committed against the Catholic Church up to May of this year.

For experts like Molina, there is no doubt that the “dictatorship” of Ortega “has a frontal war against the Catholic Church of Nicaragua and its objective is to completely eliminate all those institutions related to the Church."

In the past, Ortega has called the bishops “terrorists” and “devils in cassocks.” 

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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