The Catholic Church has been under assault in Nicaragua under the Daniel Ortega-Rosario Murillo regime, experiencing a troubled reality marked by persecution, imprisonment, and exile. Authorities and people sympathetic to the regime have routinely harassed Catholic clergy and worshippers.
Among the regime’s latest actions was the expulsion of 12 catholic priests who were sent to Rome in mid-October, a move that critics have said demonstrates the regime’s crackdown on the Church. The group did not include Rolando Álvarez, bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa, a staunch critic of the Ortega-Murillo regime, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison on charges of treason.
Leonardo Paz, a researcher at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation’s International Intelligence Unit, explains that the situation has not always been one of conflict between Ortega and the Nicaraguan Church. The Catholic Church was close to the government in the late 1970s, when there was a transition from the Somoza family dictatorship to the Sandinista regime, being very active and helping to negotiate the release of political prisoners. The relationship changed quickly, however, because the Sandinistas had a problem with the Church’s ability to influence the majority Catholic population.
“Although in recent years, as in other countries, evangelical denominations have been growing a lot, Catholicism in Nicaragua remains very strong. It has a very strong permeability in the population, in the sense that you have ecclesiastical committees in every neighborhood, churches, a very strong penetration into the social fabric, not just in terms of going to church, but [in terms of] structuring networks; this is very important,” Paz said.
The researcher says that the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Ortega-Murillo regime worsened after the protests against the Sandinista regime in 2018, which demanded the end of his mandate. At the time, Ortega asked the Church for help to mediate with the main leaders. The Catholic Church, however, initially took a neutral stance, in that it would not participate, but the strong repression, which resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people, led the Church to condemn Ortega’s actions.
“There is evidence of accusations that some churches have ended up hiding people fleeing repression. And so [the regime] ends up saying that the churches are helping terrorists. Some of the blame is put on the church for the protests process and keeping up the protests and for safeguarding these people who protested, who, [according to the regime] were like terrorists,” Paz said. Such was the beginning of the persecution and clash between the regime and the Church.
The researcher says that with the Church’s position against the regime’s actions, the Ortega-Murillo gradually began the persecution with a series of actions, such as closing down Catholic radio and TV stations, canceling the legal status of missionary entities, preventing some of them from operating, receiving funds and being able to have bank accounts, expelling ecclesiastics and clerics from the country, as well as banning processions and the staging of the Way of the Cross in the streets, as was traditionally done. According to Paz, the regime’s fear is that the population will begin to unite around what they consider to be injustice and persecution of the Catholic Church.
“So, part of the population isn’t really mobilized because of the […] repression, but they are together with the church in this context,” Paz said. For him, the only way to improve the human rights situation in Nicaragua is through international pressure. “It’s the main countries in the region that have a direct relationship with Nicaragua, be they creditors, trade partners, or countries that provide development aid, with subsidized loans to finance Nicaragua’s infrastructure and budget. They are the ones who are going to have to put pressure on Nicaragua so that the Ortega regime eases up a bit, not just in relation to the Catholic Church, but in relation to the way it embarrasses and represses protests.”