Opposition activists hold hunger strikes in Nicaraguan churches

Students friends and relatives of political prisoners protest in front of a police line at the Universidad Centroamericana UCA in Managua Nov 19 2019 Credit Inti Ocon AFP via Getty Images Students, friends, and relatives of political prisoners protest in front of a police line at the Universidad Centroamericana in Managua, Nov. 19, 2019. | Inti Ocon/AFP via Getty Images.

Pro-government forces in Nicaragua have ended a siege of the Managua cathedral as mothers holding a hunger strike there were evacuated, though a similar hunger strike at a parish church in Masaya is continuing.

The hunger strikers in both churches – Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua and San Miguel in Masaya – have been calling for the release of their relatives, whom they believe to be political prisoners.

Anti-government protests in Nicaragua began in April 2018. They have resulted in more than 320 deaths.

Seven mothers entered Managua's Immaculate Conception Cathedral Nov. 18, and they were soon followed by the mob of government supporters. The mothers removed themselves to another part of the cathedral.

Msgr. Carlos Avilés, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Managua, stated that "there are a number of unjustly detained political prisoners in the country. Their mothers desperately tried to enter the cathedral to pray … then the government with the police helping them, let in a mob of government supporters backed by the police to violate the cathedral."

The archdiocese said that "violent groups related to the government entered and took control of the Managua Metropolitan Cathedral. When reprimanded by Fr. Rodolfo López and Sister Arelys Guzmán, these people responded with violence, beating the priest and sister who are okay but who had to leave the church to protect themselves."

The archdiocese also said that the pro-government forces "broke the padlocks of the bell tower and other padlocks, thus desecrating our Metropolitan Cathedral" during the night.

The mothers took shelter in the cathedral overnight, and were then evacuated Nov. 19 in a Red Cross ambulance, as part of a deal negotiated by Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua.

The pro-government forces lifted their blockade of the cathedral shortly thereafter.

The archdiocese condemned "the acts of desecration, siege, and intimidation, which do not contribute to the peace and stability of the country."

The Managua archdiocese also asked president Daniel Ortega to "take immediate action that all our Catholic churches are respected and likewise that the National Police pull back their troops that are besieging and intimidating the cathedral and our parishes."

Other churches in the country have been encircled by police in an effort to keep the demonstrations from spreading.

In Masaya,  fewer than 20 miles southeast of Managua, a group of women began a hunger strike in  San Miguel parish Nov. 13 or 14.

Authorities cut off electricity and water to the church and the National Police have surrounded the building, threatening to enter by force to end the demonstration.

Thirteen people who tried to bring water to the demonstrators Nov. 14 were arrested. They were charged Nov. 18 with weapons transport. Police say the 13 people were carrying guns and bombs, and that they meant to "continue carrying out terrorist acts ... against police buildings, city halls and monuments."

A group of priests tried to enter San Miguel church Nov. 15, but police held them back.

Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano of Managua has condemned the National Police's "siege and intimidation" of the hunger strikers in Masaya and their pastor, Fr. Edwin Román.

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He called on the national police "to respect the free movement to demonstrate ... and the exercise of religious freedom."

The Nicaraguan bishops' conference expressed "profound concern" Nov. 19 over the "indifference of the state for the rights of Nicaraguans who are expressing their sorrow and their needs."

The bishops called on "those responsible for these sieges to change their stance. Nicaraguans have suffered too much pain. The besieged families suffer doubly: the lack of freedom for their incarcerated family members and, now, the state of siege that threatens their lives. We call on the government to hear their petitions which are at the same time their rights."

Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua's vice president and Ortega's wife, criticized "those who claim to speak in the name of the faith," calling them "repugnant wolves who spread hatred."

Nicaragua's crisis began last year after Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces.

The pension reforms which triggered the unrest were modest, 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.

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The Church had suggested that elections, which are not scheduled until 2021, be held this year, but Ortega has ruled this out.

Ortega 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.

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