ROME – As the government of Nicaragua struggles to maintain control amid a spiraling cycle of protests over its economic policies and human rights record, it’s launched a new crackdown on the Catholic Church, stopping a group of priests who were trying to broker a dialogue between pro- and anti-government forces.
Nicaragua’s Vice President, the wife of President Daniel Ortega, described the action as “God’s work.”
On Monday, a coalition of Nicaragua’s military, paramilitary, police forces and militants favorable to the Ortega government were ordered to force the closure of a barricade on the highway leading to the city of La Trinidad, some 60 miles north of the capital, Managua, erected by protesters.
At least one person was killed in the clashes – though some reports speak of four. Groups such as the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) currently in the country have investigated more than 220 deaths in the past 75 days of protests.
On Monday, at the end of the first week of the IACHR mission, Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, Rapporteur for Nicaragua, warned that “it is urgent and essential to end repression and arbitrary detentions, as well as the new forms of violations that are being identified.”
She also reminded the Nicaraguan government of the importance of complying with a recommendation to protect the personal integrity and safety of all demonstrators, and of all people exercising their rights and public liberties.
Rosario Murillo, the Vice President, said that repression against civilians that led to the elimination of the blockade on the highway was a “work of the faith in God.”
“Having managed this morning to recover mobility [and] security, on the (highway)” Murillo said, allowing for traffic to move freely, was a “miraculous event, the work of faith in God.”
According to Spanish news agency EFE, however, paramilitary forces didn’t stop with the barricade but went directly into the neighborhoods, which was evidenced also in social media, with pictures showing armed men going after other small barricades set up by civilians in an attempt to prevent them from entering their neighborhoods.
The Catholic Church, currently trying to support a dialogue process between the government and the opposition, protested the repression.
When a group of priests from neighboring parishes tried to reach the highway blockage and dialogue with those answering Ortega’s command, they were intercepted by “five hooded men,” according to Father Eugenio Rodríguez, who was one of the priests and who later spoke with AFP.
“We tried to come close to dialogue and prevent a clash between protesters and the police, but when we arrived, the paramilitary stopped us,” he said.
At some point in the afternoon, the government forces barricaded La Candelaria, a Catholic Church, with several priests and dozens of faithful inside. The bells of the church rang earlier in the day, warning locals that a coalition of military and government supporters was on its way to the city.
Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua confirmed this through Twitter: “I’m being told that the parish church of La Candelaria, in the city of La Trinida, in the department of Esteli, is surrounded by members of the national police and paramilitary groups, causing panic among the priests and the faithful who are inside.”
The prelate, who met with Pope Francis over the weekend, urged the “national direction of the police to suspend this action of harassment, so that the faithful can return to their homes.”
Murillo, on the other hand, claimed that the police were freeing the church of La Candelaria, saying that it’s “hard to believe that they’re stopping us, or trying to stop us” from going to church.
“Only when one is very evil, perverse, is traffic interrupted so that people cannot go to temples, churches… It [shows] a lack of spirit, and above all, a lack of faith,” she said.
Though he didn’t directly address her, Bishop Silvio Jose Baez, auxiliary of Managua, quoted from the Book of Exodus on Twitter, saying that, “You shall not pronounce the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.”
In vain, he said, means “literally, ‘empty’,” so the “name of the Lord is emptied when it is used for self-interest, ignoring the content of its name: God liberator of the victims, merciful and just.”
Protests against Ortega and his wife Murillo began after a failed attempt to reform the social security system, which then became a widespread protest that today calls for their resignation and anticipated elections, currently scheduled for 2022. They’ve been in power for the past 11 years.
Ortega had already been president of Nicaragua in the 1980s and many observers believe the violence seen in the country today is worse than that of three decades ago.