ROME – Nicaragua belongs on a “special watch list” for having engaged in, or tolerated, severe violations of religious freedom, according to the latest religious freedom report from the U.S. State Department.

The 2021 Report on International Religious Freedom was presented June 2, with a special focus on how the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega has intensified persecution, harassment, death threats, and attacks against Catholic leaders in Nicaragua.

The report reveals that the U.S. embassy in Managua has tried to intervene in favor of Catholic officials, but they received no response from the administration of Ortega and Vice President first lady Rosario Murillo, which has imprisoned more than 180 opposition leaders.

On Wednesday, the list of imprisoned members of the opposition added a Catholic priest, Father Manuel Salvador Garcia, who had been filmed carrying a knife inside his church’s compound in an attempt to defend himself from an angry mob that surrounded the Jesus Nazareno church making threats against his life.

Pro-regime newspapers quote a woman who claimed the priest attacked her, but neighbors from the church claimed they witnessed her having a confrontation with her husband who beat her, while the priest came to her aid.

This is only the latest in a series of what human rights organizations and exiled Nicaraguans have described as arbitrary attacks against the Catholic Church.

Bishop Silvio Jose Baez has been exiled in Miami since 2019. Father Edwin Roman, who openly opposed the repression by government forces of civil protests in 2018, was forced into exile earlier this year and is with the bishop in Miami. From there, both have remained steadfast in their criticism of what they describe as a dictatorial regime.

On May 30, the fourth anniversary of a massive protest in Nicaragua known as the “Massacre of Mother’s Day” – 20 people were killed by military snipers who shot at a rally for justice for the dozens who had been killed in the 2018 protests – Roman went to Twitter to demand “Justice! For that crime against humanity. That blood and those tears demand punishment to those who gave the order, and those who carried it out.”

Throughout most of May, two of Managua’s parishes were under siege for several weeks, and the military and police personnel banned a priest and a bishop from leaving. Rolando Alvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa, had to find refuge in the Santo Cristo de las Colinas parish in the country’s capital after he was harassed all day and his family home invaded by authorities.

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On May 20, the government expropriated the Catholic TV channel, run by the bishops’ conference; a few days later, it had been transformed to a pro-government signal, financed by the state.

The State Department’s report also stated that the Catholic leaders who provided shelter and medical assistance to peaceful protesters in 2018, “continued to experience government retribution, including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies, charges they said were unfounded, withholding of tax exemptions, and denial of religious services for political prisoners.”

It also documents that the government seized the passport of a Nicaraguan priest, revoked the visas of at least two foreign priests after they criticized the government, and drastically reduced public funding to a university run by a Catholic bishop critical of the government. The government revoked the broadcasting licenses of an evangelical Protestant television and radio station after the station owner, also a presidential candidate, denounced election irregularities in November.

“Reported antichurch activities included verbal insults, death threats, burglary of Catholic religious items, and unlawful entry into Catholic churches,” the State Department report says, listing the beading of statues, attacks against priests and vandalism against church property.

As the report notes, Nicaragua’s constitution “prohibits discrimination based on religion, establishes freedom of belief, religion and worship, and provides that no one shall be compelled by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.”

Yet “throughout the year, President Daniel Ortega and Vice President and First Lady Rosario Murillo verbally harassed priests and bishops, calling them ‘terrorists in cassocks’ and ‘coup plotters’ and accusing them of committing crimes,” the report says.

It alleges that repressive actions against the Catholic Church are due to the bishops’ unconditional support for victims of the Ortega regime.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma