MANAGUA, Nicaragua — As the Catholic Church around the world struggles to maintain its credibility after the clerical sexual abuse crisis, in Nicaragua public trust in at least one bishop appears to be going up on a daily basis despite a government campaign to bring him down.
Bishop Silvio Jose Baez, appointed as auxiliary of Managua nine years ago, has become the public face of a church that, amidst civil strife, has chosen to stand with its people.
Since late October, the government has been coercing public employees to sign a petition demanding the Vatican take Baez out of Nicaragua, claiming he’s among the plotters of a “coup,” but the campaign set up by media aligned with the government of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, has had the perverse effect of turning him into a popular hero.
According to newspaper reports, the campaign against the bishop turned into indoctrination in public schools, with students being instructed to sign the petition, under threat of not graduating, which describes Baez as a “violent person who incites others to violence.”
As the pressure mounted, Baez’s entire family had to flee the country due to death threats, which have also been directed at the bishop himself.
A member of the Discalced Carmelites, Baez conducted most of his studies in Rome, thanks to the financial aid of the international papal charity Aid to the Church in Need, launched after WWII to help Catholics who were behind the Iron Curtain, but which since then has expanded into a global institution that helps struggling Christians everywhere.
“Last week, I went to a parish and it was a sensation,” Baez told Crux Nov. 17. “The government tried to create the feeling that the people despise me, but it isn’t so.”
The bishop has been openly critical of the Ortegas and the repression that left some 500 people dead since protests began in April.
“I have nothing to hide … all I’ve done is serve the people in the name of God, and I will continue in this role that the Church has entrusted to me,” he said, speaking at his residence in the diocesan seminary. “My conscience is clean, I have nothing to hide, and I’m innocent of everything I’m being accused of.”
He’s referring to out-of–context voice recordings that show him speaking ill of the government and, allegedly, calling for a coup. The tape was procured during a private conversation he had with five peasants. It was then altered and released in an attempt to discredit him. Afterwards, the petition demanding his removal began to circulate.
“This campaign to have the pope remove me from the country is not only because of the tapes, but because of my nine years in ministry as a free bishop, with no material belongings to defend and no political commitment to any group,” Baez said. “My ministry has been at the service of the word of God, guided by the magisterium of the Church’s social teaching. Nine years of prophetic ministry. Critical, I won’t deny, I’ve been very critical, but with arguments rooted in the Bible and the magisterium.”
Despite the threats and allegations, Baez remains steadfast in his commitment to work for a “better Nicaragua,” because the people “deserve more than what they have.”
“My biggest strength is Christ,” he said. “I bask in my weaknesses, because in them Christ acts with the strength given to me by the people.”
Speaking about the ongoing crisis, Baez said it’s the product of a progressive dismantling of the rule of law, of the democratic institutions and of the strengthening of a family and its friends in power. Business owners were allied with the power structure, and the economy grew but so did inequality.
“This is not Venezuela, but people are suffering,” the bishop said, referring to the Latin American country led by Nicolas Maduro, successor of Hugo Chavez.
According to Baez, the “narrative from the state” of a failed coup d’etat financed by foreign interests is “all a lie.”
“This was a pacific and citizen-led insurrection that caught us all by surprise, because it began from where we least expected it, young people,” he said, acknowledging that until April, many older Nicaraguans saw young people invested only in watching soccer.
“But they’ve woken the conscience of the country,” he said.
Like his boss, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Baez acknowledges that not all civilians were peaceful, as an estimated 20 policemen and 150 people aligned with the government were killed. But 500 of those against Ortega, a majority of whom were young people, died at the hands of the state and paramilitary groups.
“It’s very complicated to understand the situation of Nicaragua,” he said. “The revolution of 1979 has ended. Those ideals that united us all, myself included, are gone. Now we have a dictatorial government with an anti-imperialism voice but with a neo-liberal way of doing business. There’s been no real interest in making the country grow, the education system has been trampled and the political structures dismantled.”
Those in power today who were part of the revolution, he said, have left nothing but a carcass of what it could have been.
“The anti-imperialist facade continues, but words such as freedom, democracy and poor have disappeared,” he said. “I believe Nicaragua is a country that has been hijacked by those who have the power and the weapons.”
Despite being accused of fomenting violence, Baez is convinced that the preaching of the bishops and priests prevented a higher death toll, because they were continuously calling on Catholics not to respond to “evil with evil, to turn the other cheek.”
“The people listened to us, and if not, we would have had another civil war,” he said.
He believes that despite the allegations made by the government, the Church has come out of the crisis stronger, and that despite mistakes the bishops might have made, “we did our best,” securing visits of international human rights commissions to investigate the deaths.
The bishops have decided to keep a low profile in recent months, refusing to engage in the verbal and sometimes physical violence. Baez himself was attacked in the arm and still has the scars of an assault he suffered in July, when, together with Brenes and the papal representative in the country, he intervened to free a group of young people who’d been barricaded inside a church.
“We’ve been able to show a different face of the Church, that of the good Samaritan, carrying the wounded people on our shoulders,” he said.
Asked about the persecution the Church is facing in Nicaragua, he defined it as religiously motivated, not political. The government, he said, is afraid of the Church’s speech rooted in the gospel and social justice.
“Forcing people to sign a declaration they don’t agree with under the threat of being fired, is a form of persecution,” he said. “Trying to buy off priests so they don’t have a prophetic voice at the service of the people is another form of persecution.”
Baez said Catholics in Nicaragua have felt the support from Catholics around the world, including Pope Francis, who prayed for the country in public on several occasions.
“The Communion of Saints is our biggest strength, I’m convinced of that,” he said. “And I have faith in the Lord. He will give justice to this small country that has suffered so much. That faith is what supports us in our belief that social justice can reign in this country, where every Nicaraguan is welcome to build a just and peaceful society, with extraordinary human and natural resources.”