MEXICO CITY — A Nicaraguan priest was attacked and robbed in his parish residence, the latest aggression against Catholic clergy and those considered opponents of the Central American country’s increasingly autocratic president.
Father Abelardo Toval Ayesta, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish in Leon, Nicaragua, was beaten on the patio of his residence Sept. 15 at around 3:30 a.m., according to press reports. The assailants then robbed personal items and cash.
“After being beaten, they left him on the ground and took some valuables,” Father Victor Morales, Diocese of Leon spokesman, told the newspaper La Prensa. “It almost cost him his life. He was hit very hard in the face, the eyes and the ribs.”
Catholic leaders in Nicaragua tweeted that Toval risked losing an eye after the attack.
Federal police said four hooded individuals attacked Toval and stole jewels and $375. The statement said two suspects, ages 19 and 22, had been arrested and described the men as “common criminals” and “neighbors and close friends” of the priest.
The attack drew outrage from Catholic leaders and demonstrated again the deteriorating relationship between the Catholic Church and President Daniel Ortega, especially as the Nicaraguan leader unleashes police and paramilitaries on protesters and campaigns of harassment against anyone aiding the opposition, including clergy, physicians and human rights defenders.
The death toll since mid-April now tops 300, according to human rights groups. The United Nations was expelled in August after reporting widespread human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings and arbitrary detentions.
The Nicaraguan bishops’ conference convened a national dialogue after protests erupted in April and opponents demanded Ortega’s ouster, but the bishops suspended talks, saying there was a lack of consensus.
In July, Managua Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes Solorzano, Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Baez, and Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the apostolic nuncio, were attacked in July by a pro-government mob as they attempted to protect a church in the city of Diriamba.
Bishop Rolando Alvarez Lagos of Matagalpa was pulled over by police Sept. 2; a pro-government mob yelled “killer” at him along the side of the road, according to video on social media.
In the city of Masaya, Father Edwin Roman Calderon told Catholic News Service he was verbally assaulted and shoved by the police chief, who had set up a loudspeaker outside the church just before Mass was to be celebrated Sept. 9.
“It’s pure repression, by the police, by paramilitaries, against citizens,” Roman said. “There’s no right to protest. … The first two or three young people who arrive at a protest, they’re taken away, they’re beaten so that other people don’t bother coming to the meeting point.”
The conflict in Nicaragua initially erupted over an attempt to reform the country’s social security institute, which critics allege had been mismanaged. Students joined in and called for Ortega to step aside. Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have called the protesters and opponents “terrorists” and “coup mongers.”
Churches were turned into collection centers and makeshift clinics as many of the injured feared going to public hospitals, where they risked arrest, according to physicians fired by the government.
Roman said he has stopped keeping medicines and supplies in churches, where the government has said, without evidence, that priests were keeping weapons.
“They’re going to say that I’m waiting for another rebellion, another uprising … that the medicines will be used for that,” he said.
Roman added that church activities have slowed. Prior to the protests, his St. Michael’s Parish had classes for 120 children preparing for their first Communion and 60 youth preparing for their confirmations. But people are now hiding at home rather than venturing out, he said.