Tension Grows Between Government, Catholic Church in Nicaragua

    20 August 2022

    A conflict is worsening between Nicaragua's government and the country's Roman Catholic Church.

    The government recently closed seven of the Church's radio stations. It also began investigating Church official Rolando álvarez who has criticized Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

    Ortega accuses the man of stirring up violence "to carry out acts of hate against the population."

    FILE - Anti-government demonstrators during a march supporting the Catholic Church, in Managua, Nicaragua, July 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga, File)
    FILE - Anti-government demonstrators during a march supporting the Catholic Church, in Managua, Nicaragua, July 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga, File)

    This is not the first time Ortega has acted against critics of his administration. Throughout 2021, officials arrested seven candidates seeking presidential office in that year's November elections.

    The conflict between the government and local Roman Catholic Church leaders is in its fifth year. Here is a look at the history of the situation and those involved.

    Who is Daniel Ortega?

    President Daniel Ortega is 76 years old and a former militant with the Sandinista National Liberation Front. He helped overthrow the country's dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979.

    Ortega first served as president from 1985 until 1990 when he was voted out of office.

    He returned as president in 2007. In voting last year, he won a fourth term. However, the election has been widely discredited because he faced no real opposition.

    How did the unrest begin?

    Social security reform in 2018 led to massive demonstrations, supported by businesspeople and Catholic leaders. Nicaraguan security forces and civilian militants killed at least 355 people in answer to the activism, reported the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Another 2,000 were wounded and 1,600 jailed in the government offensive, it said.

    Political unease continued in the country, however.

    Months before last year's vote, a public opinion study found that support for five opposition candidates put Ortega's re-election in question. Within weeks all five were arrested, along with two other candidates.

    How has the church been involved?

    Roman Catholicism is the main religion in Nicaragua. The Church supported the Sandinista party after Somoza left office. But political differences between the party and the Church damaged their relationship over time.

    The Church has been supportive of the protesters and their cause. In April 2018, the Church sheltered student demonstrators in the capital, Managua. It also provided food and money to support them.

    High-level Church officials, including Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Báez, openly criticized violence against political activists. Brenes said the protests were just and well-reasoned actions.

    Báez rejected any political decision that would harm the people. He left the country in 2019 at the request of officials in Vatican City, the Roman Catholic Church's headquarters in Italy.

    Ortega has answered by accusing some church officials of being part of a plot to overthrow him, calling them "terrorists."

    What about the latest church-government conflict?

    The church radio stations were closed by the government August 1. Police investigating álvarez accused him of "organizing violent groups."

    álvarez has called for electoral reforms for what he described as "the democratization of the country." He also demanded the release of about 190 people he says are political prisoners.

    Since August 3, officials have restricted álvarez to the Church complex where he lives. On Thursday, he appeared in a live social media broadcast of a religious service at the complex. Ten other people, also barred from leaving the complex, appeared with him on the broadcast.

    The next day, Church leaders announced that the government had banned a planned religious march for security reasons. The church asked its members to attend a service at the complex, instead. Hundreds of Nicaraguans answered the call, attending the service under a heavy police presence.

    What is the reaction from the Vatican?

    For almost two weeks, the Vatican was publicly silent about the investigation of álvarez. Some Latin American human rights activists criticized the Church's silence.

    Juan Antonio Cruz is the Vatican's representative in the intergovernmental group, the Organization of American States (OAS).

    Cruz expressed concern about the situation and asked both parties to "seek ways of understanding."

    I'm Dan Novak.

    Dan Novak adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on reporting by The Associated Press.