ROME – According to tens of thousands who rallied in Nicaragua on Saturday in defense of the Catholic Church, particularly the bishops, the prelates are “neither terrorists nor coup-mongers, [but] shepherds with the smell of their sheep.”
Though protests have become common affairs in Nicaragua, with millions taking to the streets since April to protest the government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murrillo, Saturday’s wasn’t just another rally.
Technically called a “Pilgrimage in solidarity with the bishops and shepherds,” the massive gathering was a response to attacks the prelates have suffered in recent months at the hands of the government and Ortega-allied forces.
Father Carlos Avilés, a member of a dialogue commission and the head of the archdiocesan lay pastoral outreach efforts, was the Church representative who addressed the crowd as they gathered at the doors of Managua’s cathedral.
“As Christians, we must defend these attitudes: don’t be led by violence, live a radical pacifism and a radical humanism rooted in the person and in helping a brother in need,” he said.
The Church, he added, will always opt for “dialogue,” for solving problems by talking, “with the use of reason and not violence.”
“For this reason, the Church, even if it’s hurt, even if it’s criticized, will always opt for dialogue, so that people understand each other by talking,” Avilés said.
The priest was interrupted several times by the crowd, which either applauded or chanted slogans in support of the bishops such as “you shall not kill,” when he urged those attending not to be tempted by violence.
Being a “radical pacifist,” he said, is one of the attitudes of Christians who, as Jesus, must be willing to do as he did: “turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecuted him and bless those who cursed him.”
“When the Roman soldier slapped him in the face, Jesus said to him: If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” the priest said, once again being interrupted by the crowd.
Recently, several bishops have been attacked – one slashed in the arm by a knife, another shot at as he was driving from one diocese to another – and many more churches have suffered attacks by paramilitary groups backing the government of the former guerrilla leader.
Priests have opened churches as make-shift hospitals during the clashes between young protesters and the army and paramilitary forces. On several occasions, religious men and women have placed themselves as human shields in front of protesters and brokered the end of violent clashes.
In response, Ortega has verbally assaulted the bishops, saying that from the beginning of the crisis he thought the bishops were “mediators, but no, they are committed to the coup-mongers. They were part of the coup-mongers’ plan.”
Thousands rallied across the capital, Managua, holding the national flag and banners in defense of the prelates: “Thank you courageous bishops for being with your people,” “Thank you brave bishops for being with your people,” “You’re the voice of the voiceless,” “I’m a coup-monger 4 calling for justice, I’m satanic 4 defending my Church, I’m a terrorist 4 wanting freedom,” and “How many more deaths for your conscience to wake up, don’t be indifferent, we don’t want any more mourning and pain, democracy with justice.”
Information shared on social media shows that not all those who participated in the “pilgrimage” were Catholics. Furthermore, a tweet re-shared by the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Jose Baez, said even groups that would normally be at odds with the Church in many western countries took part.
“There was everything in this rally,” said a message by user Maria de la Paz. “Catholics, Evangelicals, non-believers, the LGBT community. Because we’re united by our love for Nicaragua, but above all the gratitude towards our brave priests. Long Live Nicaragua!”
(The Homosexual Community of Nicaragua responded to the message, thanking de la Paz for including them in the post, but clarifying that “current human rights see LGBT as obsolete,” and that the term should have been LGBTIQ for “intersexual and queer.”)
According to Baez, one of the strongest voices among the bishops in challenging the government, the moment being lived in Nicaragua today will be remembered in history as “young people exploding from ethics, and bishops who speak and act as prophets.”
Since protests against the government began in April, the Catholic Church has served as mediator in a series of unsuccessful dialogue attempts. The protests, that began as a cry against a proposed social security reform, have been steady ever since, as has been the repression by the government.
According to the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association, 448 people have died during more than three months of political upheaval and protests demanding Ortega leave office.
At a distance, United States Vice president Mike Pence also defended the bishops. Speaking at an event organized by the Secretariat of State called a “Ministerial to advance religious freedom,” he said that in Nicaragua, “The government of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
“For months, the Nicaraguan bishops have sought to broker a national dialogue following pro-democracy protests earlier this year,” he continued, as he introduced a Nicaraguan priest whose church was attacked not two weeks ago. “But government-backed mobs armed with machetes and even heavy weapons have attacked parishes and Church properties. and bishops and priests have been physically assaulted by the police.”
Dialogue attempts today are suspended because the opposition, including the Church, wants Ortega to call elections in 2019, but he’s refused. Ortega was re-elected for his third consecutive term in 2016 and is expected to stay in the presidency until 2021.