Why Nicaraguan bishops can speak out against a dictator

ROME – In a process widely described as a “joke” and “dubious” by members of the international community, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was re-elected last month after jailing his main electoral opponents.

Even before the tally was announced, US President Joe Biden said Ortega and his wife, Rosario, the country’s vice president, had orchestrated a “pantomime election that was neither free nor fair”.

Only one of the country’s 13 Catholic bishops voted. The others refused to participate in what they denounced as a farce, with many openly acknowledging the case in election weekend homilies.

The very public boycott of the bishops of the November election reflects the unique situation they find themselves in: for the past three years, Nicaraguan Catholic bishops and priests have been the only members of civil society to publicly challenge Ortega, a leader who came to resemble the dictator he helped topple in the late 1970s.

In April 2018, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the pension reform project, the Catholic hierarchy opened the doors of churches for the wounded to find refuge and for doctors to treat them clandestinely, because they were forbidden to do so in public. hospitals. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 355 people were killed during the protests.

Since the 2018 uprising, Catholic churches have been attacked, including the Cathedral of Managua in 2020. In 2019, Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio José Báez was essentially exiled from his diocese at the request of Pope Francis after receiving several death threats.

This year, the Ortegas called the bishops “putschists”, “offspring of the devil”, “foreign agents”, and accused them of preaching false Christianity. They sent police to intimidate bishops and priests, even setting up a police station in front of the home of the Archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes Solorzano.

In his first public appearance since falling ill with COVID-19 in September, Cardinal Brenes said last month that Church leaders cannot “remain silent” in the face of the suffering of the people.

Yet beyond the verbal attacks, the seizure of Catholic churches across the country by the government and the bullets fired at the cars of the bishops (apparently intended to miss their targets), the Ortega government has until present dangles violence against bishops like a metaphorical sword. of Damocles, but refrained from imprisoning the clergy.

As long as this policy continues, bishops and priests should continue to speak out against Ortega and his wife.

Nicaraguan exiles in Costa Rica march through San José, Costa Rica on November 7 to protest the presidential election in Nicaragua. (CNS / Mayela Lopez, Reuters)

Father Pedro Mendez from the diocese of Masaya, 32 km southeast of the capital Managua, was tortured by the government in 2018 as part of the “cleanup operation”. On election day last month, he hung a banner outside his church with the support of his parishioners proclaiming that their “finger will stay clean” to participate in the elections, although voting is compulsory in Nicaragua.

Bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos of the Diocese of Matagalpa regularly rises against the government in his Sunday homilies. On November 28, he called the problem of widespread poverty in the country a political problem.

“There are a lot of things that have impoverished us,” he said. “We are not poor because we are poor, but because there is a political decision not to distribute wealth fairly, subjecting people to poverty.”

For someone so sensitive to criticism and inclined to take ruthless action, why hasn’t Ortega taken tougher action against the troublesome Catholic bishops across the country?

Ortega, like the other well-known authoritarian socialist leader of Latin America, the Venezuelan Nicolás Maduro, seems to have understood that despite being a “soft power”, the Vatican is too big a bear for them. grow.

It’s a topic that comes up often in my conversations with Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, the late Archbishop of Caracas who died of COVID-19 earlier this year. I would bring up the criticisms of the Vatican’s apparent silence on Maduro’s dictatorial regime, under which 90% of Venezuelans now live in poverty. And as I pointed out in Crux, every time he told me that prelates like him dared to speak out because they knew they had the support of the Holy See and the Holy Father.

Maduro has also verbally attacked bishops, uttered death threats and wreaked havoc by his activists by invading churches during Sunday mass.

Yet in both Nicaragua and Venezuela, although facing many challenges, Catholic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Caritas and Aid to the Church in Need are exceptions to the rule when it comes to attendance. foreign organizations providing aid to non-democratic countries. where people are facing starvation. The bishops and the pontifical representative in the country are always summoned for efforts at dialogue, and the prelates always say yes.

One explanation for why the clergy and religious have for the most part been spared from violence is that, unlike countries like Syria or Nigeria, where civil strife is steeped in religious fundamentalism, government supporters in Nicaragua and Venezuela are not ready to kill their opponents in the name of God.

But many observers also point to another important reason why Ortega and Maduro do not appear to hold their threats against the hierarchy: Despite the growing secularization of the international community, they know that a hard power like the United States, with the European Union and United Nations, would all join the head of the Catholic Church in protest.

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