As violent oppression continues to rise in Nicaragua, with at least 10 people killed on Sunday, Catholic bishops have called for a day of prayer and fasting for July 20 “as an act of atonement for the profanation carried out in recent months against God.”

On that day, the bishops said, “We will pray the prayer of exorcism to St. Michael Archangel.”

Recent developments that led the bishops to issue the call include:

  • On Tuesday, according to the auxiliary bishop of Managua, the country’s capital, the neighborhood of Monimbo in the southeast city of Masaya was under attack. He said gunfire reached the parish of St. Mary Magdalene, where a Catholic priest was seeking refuge.
  • On Saturday, the Divine Mercy Church in Managua was under siege for 16 hours. It had become a refuge for students who, while protesting at a nearby university, were attacked by pro-government forces. Pictures posted to social media showed the church had been pockmarked by bullets.
  • On Sunday, the car of a bishop was shot at as he was on his way to the northern city of Nindiri, where he had hoped to stop an attack by the military. He wasn’t wounded, but the tires and windows of the car were destroyed.
  • On the same day, the house of a priest in Masaya was ransacked by the police. Belongings were taken with no explanation given.
  • On Monday, a center of the papal charity Caritas was set aflame in the northern city of Sébaco.
  • On July 9, a cardinal, a bishop and the papal representative were among clergy from Managua attacked as they attempted to protect St. Sebastian Basilica in the nearby city of Diriamba from a pro-government mob.

The list, though incomplete, serves as an illustration of the situation under President Daniel Ortega and his wife, the country’s vice president, who’ve labeled the Catholic Church as public enemy number one, amid a crisis that exploded in April with widespread protests against a social security reform plan that was never implemented.

“In Nicaragua, amidst this reality of violence, manifestations of evil are expressing themselves in this irrational and disproportionate violence,” said Father Boanerges Carballo, Managua’s episcopal vicar for pastoral affairs.

To counteract violence “spiritually rooted in evil,” Carballo told Crux on Tuesday, the bishops called for a month dedicated to prayer and reparation, with the July 20 event being the first of four Fridays of prayer and fasting for peace in the country.

“We’re urging Catholics to pray and fast on Friday because we believe that this hurt and violence must be healed from the heart of people, and what a better way than to offer the renunciation to things that are manifestations of evil?” Carballo said.

From July 15 to August 15, the Feast of Assumption, the bishops have called Catholics to participate in Eucharistic adoration every Thursday; fasting and prayer on Fridays; renewing Nicaragua’s consecration to Christ’s Immaculate heart on Saturdays; and renewing their baptismal promises on Sunday, “because with it, we renounce Satan and his seductions, and we profess our faith.”

These manifestations of evil, the priest said, are evident in the violence, but also in actions that go against the dignity of the people and also the dead. Speaking over the phone, Carballo said that in many places in the country families have not been allowed to give Christian burial to those killed in the past three months.

Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, local NGOs claim that 350 people have died since April in clashes between civilians and government forces, with the majority of those killed being civilians, including many minors, including a toddler.

Today, protests take place on an almost daily basis up and down the country, calling for the resignation of the two leaders who’ve been in power since 2007 and who, under the present constitution, are scheduled to stay in office until 2022.

Since the protests began on April 18, bishops, priests and nuns often have been called upon by the government to mediate, only to see those efforts impeded. They’ve also been involved in trying to stop various episodes of violence, putting themselves between those protesting Ortega and the country’s police force, military and pro-Ortega paramilitary groups.

“Given the prophetic dimension of our ministry, we have seen the urgency of going to the places of conflict to defend the lives of the defenseless, to bring comfort to the victims and mediate with the goal of a peaceful solution to the situation,” the Nicaraguan bishops said in a statement released July 14, in which they claimed that “today, like never before, human rights are being violated in Nicaragua.”

“The Nicaraguan Church will continue to use all of the means it is able to. Our mission as pastors and prophets does not contradict our role as mediators and witnesses, given that what we seek is peace and justice as Nicaraguans,” they added.

Many in the international community, including the United Nations, have called on Ortega to put an end to the violence. Among them is the United States ambassador to the Organization of American States, Carlos Trujillo, who on Tuesday went to Twitter to say that the government’s repeated acts of violence and repression “will only lead to further isolation and sanctions. They must immediately stop this genocide!”

Nothing new in Nicaragua

Not much is new when it comes to Latin American authoritarian leaders labeling the Catholic Church as part of the opposition. When it comes to Nicaragua, however, it’s quite literally history repeating itself.

Yet despite the fact that the bishops and clergy are being targeted, they’re not planning on backing down any time soon.

“In this conflict, amidst this reality of violence, the Catholic Church has tried to show an action of humanity in favor of those who are in need,” Carballo said, explaining why the churches have become centers of emergency medical aid.

“Even reaching a hospital is dangerous, so the doors of our churches are open,” he said. In addition, priests toll church bells to warn the population when the government forces are coming into town.

Carballo believes that the fact that churches have been attacked — “in actions that we consider to be desecrations and sacrileges” — with bullet holes in images of the Divine Mercy, is yet another proof that what is going on in Nicaragua is not “only political, but a manifestation of evil.”

Many priests, he argued, have been “misunderstood in their mission,” leading to the violence against the hierarchy.

“The government feels the Church is its adversary, because beyond mediating, it’s also humanist and it must be on the side of those who are being attacked and oppressed,” Carballo said. “It’s making a mistake that it’s already made in the past, ignoring that the role of the Church as a mother is to go out and encounter everyone.”

The reference to repeating a mistake refers to the late 1980s, when Ortega was first in power. Examples of attacks against priests and bishops also abounded in that era.

Perhaps nothing works better as an illustration of how thorny and ambivalent the relationship has been than the papal visit by John Paul II in 1983, when Ortega was the head of the Junta of National Reconstruction.

Ortega and the Sandinista militants rose to power on the back of strong Catholic support, especially from left-leaning priests who adhered to the Marxist-inspired wings of Latin America’s Liberation Theology.

Though some key figures remained faithful to the Sandinista regime, by the time John Paul II visited, the national bishops’ conference was already opposing Ortega and urging Catholic priests to do so as well. Hence, when he arrived at Managua’s airport, the pontiff was seen publicly scolding Father Ernesto Cardenal, the government’s Culture Minister at the time.

During the pope’s homily later that day, personnel of Vatican Radio were held at gunpoint and forced to lower the volume of the pope’s microphone, so that pro-Sandinista chants could be heard: “One Church on the side of the poor!” and “We want peace!”

According to reports from the time, the pope was forced to stop his homily and order: “Silence!”

Thirty years later, it would seem, another Ortega administration is no more receptive to appeals from Church authorities than when John Paul was in town.