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.