Talks to overcome several weeks of anti-government protests and riots in Nicaragua which have been met harshly by security forces began Wednesday under the mediation of the Catholic Church.

President Daniel Ortega and his vice-president and wife, Rosario Murillo, attended the dialogue May 16 at Our Lady of Fatima national seminary in Managua. Other stakeholders present included business owners, students, and farmers.

Protests began April 18 after Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests have only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces.

Demonstrators have called for freedom of expression, an end to violent repression, and for Ortega to step down from office.

The Nicaraguan bishops' conference issued a statement May 15 saying: "We hope that the dialogue will structurally address the issue of  the country's institutions with the aim of paving the way for its democratization. Through the good will of the parties, attentively listening to one other, and the proposals to be made, we hope to reach important agreements which will translate into concrete decisions."

The prelates asked that all sectors of society, including the government, "strive to maintain an atmosphere conducive to tolerance, respect and especially when peaceful demonstrations are held."

The Church is acting as a mediator in the dialogue "after listening to the outcry of a large majority of society and conscious of the gravity of the situation we are undergoing in the country," while acknowledging that "the circumstances for this dialogue are not the most suitable."

Nicaragua's bishops asked the faithful to "persevere in prayer so that the Lord may grant to us all, as we approach the feast of Pentecost, the assistance of the Holy Spirit 'who leads us into all truth.'"

The Church in Nicaragua was quick to acknowledge the protestors' complaints.

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Bishop Silvio José Baez Ortega, Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, thanked a group of some 2,000 students taking refuge in the Managua cathedral April 21 for being "the moral reservoir" of the Church and assured them of the Church's support for their cause. "You have woken the nation up," he said.

Bishop Baez has continued to voice his support for the protestors.

The AP's Christopher Sherman reported that during a more recent homily, the bishop said that "to denounce and publicly demonstrate against the actions, historic processes, political decisions that go against the great majority is also to love," and that, moreover, for those whose presence causes instability, "to relinquish, to leave can be an act of love."

Bishop Rolando José Alvarez Lagos of Matagalpa has said, "We hope there would be a series of electoral reforms, structural changes to the electoral authority – free, just and transparent elections, international observation without conditions … Effectively the democratization of the country."

According to the AP, a priest of the Diocese of Matagalpa was wounded by shrapnel May 15 while trying to separate protestors and security forces.

The bishops' conference has asked that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights be allowed to enter Nicaragua and investigate the violence.

They have also called on the government "to hear the cry of the young Nicaraguans," adding: "There are social sins that no human being can ignore, but rather must denounce, above all if they desire to restore the violated rights of the most vulnerable: our retirees."

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The reforms which triggered the protests were modest – the plan would have required retirees to pay 5 percent of their pension into a medical expenses fund, the social security withdrawal from employees' salaries would have increased from 6.25 to 7 percent, and employers would have had to increase contributions as well – but protests quickly turned to Ortega's authoritarian bent.

Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.

He was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought US-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.

This article was originally published by our sister agency, ACI Prensa. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.