MANAGUA, Nicaragua – A fire in the church. Bullet holes in the tabernacle. Students fleeing for their lives.

Father Raul Zamora, who serves as parish priest at Divine Mercy parish in Nicaragua, told CNA about his decision to take in 150 university students after paramilitary opened fire on their protest earlier this month – and how prayer sustained them through the more than 15 hours of gunfire that followed.

On July 13, students at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua were protesting President Daniel Ortega’s pension reforms and increasingly authoritarian rule – part of larger, national protests that had been ongoing since April.

When the Nicaraguan government forces’ repression of the student protests turned violent that day, some students were on their cell phones calling their parents to say goodbye because they were sure that they were going to die. Others called Zamora.

“That university is actually under my pastoral care,” said Zamora. “It is right next to our parish. I am in charge of attending to those students spiritually. I knew the students personally.”

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“I told them, ‘Come to the parish. Come to the parish. Don’t stay there,’” said the priest.

Students began to arrive at Divine Mercy Church in groups, and Zamora and other church staff drove over to the university to search for the wounded. They drove back and forth six or seven times. Police and paramilitary were continuing to attack the campus.

“Every time the students tried to go into the parish cars, they would start shooting,” said Zamora.

He thought that the students would be safe once they were in the church, but then the paramilitary gunfire was directed at the parish itself.

Joshua Partlow, a Washington Post reporter who had been covering the protests, ended up taking refuge along with the students in Divine Mercy Church.

The students “carried the wounded into Father Raul Zamora’s rectory and put them on chairs or on the blood-spattered tile floor,” wrote Partlow.

“Not long after 6 p.m., with several high-pitched cracks, the mood took a dark turn. The faraway shooting was suddenly nearby. The paramilitaries had appeared, cutting off the only exit from Divine Mercy and firing at the remaining barricade just outside the church. It became clear that everyone inside . . . would not be going anywhere,” he explained.

They remained in the church overnight, sustaining more than 15 hours of gunfire, until Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes Solorzano and Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, the apostolic nuncio, were able to negotiate the student’s release on Saturday morning. Zamora had been on the phone with them throughout the night explaining the situation.

Throughout the night, Zamora led students in prayer in the divine mercy chaplet and the rosary.

At one moment, when the shooting was particularly intense and everyone was lying on the ground, Partlow remembers some of the prayers Zamora said quietly with the students.

“Lord, we ask you to protect us in this moment,” he said.

“We believe in you, Lord, those of us who have no strength against this great army,” he murmured. “Help us, Lord.”

“The whole night we had a lot of time to pray. The bullets were non-stop,” Zamora told CNA.

He noted that many of the protesting students who took refuge in the church were not practicing Catholics.

“There were students with me in that moment from different religions, different denominations, atheists. In some way, it was very moving to me to see some of those students, who didn’t believe in anything, come over and hug me, crying and say, ‘If I were to believe in a God, I would believe in your God.’ That was, for me, very powerful,” said the priest.

“This is a moment when the Church gives witness and really shines forth the face of Christ in us,” he continued.

At one point late in the night, a part of the church caught fire, and a student called Zamora over from the rectory as it was put out. That is when he saw the bullet holes in the church’s divine mercy image and in the tabernacle. The student did not know what a tabernacle was, so the priest had to explain. He noted that the Blessed Sacrament was unharmed in the attack.

Mourners attend the wake of Nicaraguan university student Gerald Vasquez. (Credit: Cristobal Venegas/AP.)

Two students were killed and at least 10 were injured by the paramilitary forces on July 13. More than 300 people have been killed since the protests began in April.

Zamora reflected on what he considers the lessons of the “persecuted Church” in Nicaragua both now and in past decades: “If the cross is not in our life, if we are not willing to suffer for love, then our religion just stays as something that is exterior. Just trying to do what is ritually appropriate. Our faith starts when we have that deep conviction in Jesus and his message. This is what we learned.”