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Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Archbishop of Managua in a 2016 file photo. La Prensa.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Archbishop of Managua in a 2016 file photo. La Prensa.

Nicaraguan dictatorship wins battle against the Catholic Church

LA PRENSA presents the third report in a series of articles that will portray in depth the persecution of the dictatorship against the Catholic Church. The articles will not be published consecutively, but they collect for posterity this dark period of our history.

On January 14, 2024, the archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, sent a note to the priests of his archdiocese: “My good Priests: After a dialogue between the Government of Nicaragua and the Holy See, it was agreed to transfer Bishop Rolando, Bishop Isidoro, Priests and two Seminarians to Rome.”

The brief note of three paragraphs ended in a lapidary manner: “I ask everyone to pray for the Bishops and Priests so that the Graces of the Lord never fail them and that the Holy Spirit guides them in all moments of their lives.”

It was a clear sign that the trip for the two seminarians, 15 priests and the two bishops, had no return.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Archbishop of Managua, leads the Stations of the Cross procession on Friday, February 23. The regime has prohibited processions in the streets as has been the tradition for centuries. Now they can only do so inside churches or on church grounds.

Murillo celebrates by congratulating Cardinal Brenes

Almost two months later, Murillo, the so-called “co-president”, in her midday monologue on March 7, congratulated Cardinal Brenes with sweet words on his 75th birthday and said, without hiding her joy, that “we are leaving behind the days of ‘broken glass’, terrible days when they tried to eliminate the sense of family and community.” For Murillo, the conflict has ended in victory for the regime.

In fact, since the negotiation with the Vatican, what really were gone were the days of extortion by the regime against a sector of the Church that strongly denounced the abuses of the dictatorship. To silence Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, bishop of Matagalpa (80 miles north of Managua) and apostolic administrator of Estelí (92 miles north of Managua), the dictators had no qualms about locking him up for more than 500 days. After he was jailed, Álvarez was sentenced without trial or evidence to 26 years in prison for alleged treason.

By mid-January, Monsignor Isidoro Mora, bishop of Siuna (198 miles north of Managua) had spent three weeks in prison. His “crime”: having asked to pray for Álvarez. That arrest, days before Christmas, had unleashed a raid against priests in key positions in various dioceses of the country: vicars, treasurers, parish priests of important churches. All key positions for the functioning of the ecclesial territories.

But this was just the latest offensive of the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo against the Catholic Church of Nicaragua. The regime had previously expelled 12 priests whom it had also detained for suggesting, at most, slight criticism of the regime. And for months, the regime had expelled or prohibited the entry of dozens of priests; it had expelled entire orders and confiscated the Central American University (UCA) from the Jesuits.

A negotiation that “was not easy” rather a capitulation

Four days after Brenes’ note to the priests, Vatican Chancellor, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, acknowledged that the negotiation with the Ortega regime “had not been easy.” However, the scope of the negotiation has barely been known.

The regime always sought to silence the Church in Nicaragua. With the exception of Álvarez, Mora and a handful of priests, who paid for their prophetic courage with their freedom, the majority of bishops and priests within the country, maintained silence to avoid being arrested.

But the “negotiation” not only ended with the exile and denationalization of the uncomfortable priests and bishops, but also managed to silence even the exiled. Neither Álvarez, nor Mora, nor any of the 27 priests who have been banished in two groups to the Vatican have spoken again.

And a voice that strongly criticized the regime weekly and was out of reach, that of the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Monsignor Silvio Báez, exiled in Miami since 2019, has not spoken since then either.

Immediately after the release and exile of the 19 religious, Báez was urgently called to the Vatican. During his visit, it was reported that Pope Francis had ratified Báez in his position as auxiliary bishop of Managua (in exile). What was not explained is how or why Báez has lowered his profile considerably. The auxiliary bishop celebrated mass every Sunday at the Saint Agatha Catholic Church in Miami, in an area with a large Nicaraguan population, and sent a copy of his Sunday homilies to La Prensa for publication. That has not happened since his trip to the Vatican.

On February 20, he surprised his followers with a message on his X account (formerly Twitter): “Greetings from the Miami airport! I am traveling to Italy to lead two rounds of spiritual exercises…” Since then, he has not said a word about Nicaragua.

Father Edwin Román, also exiled since 2020, was transferred from the Saint Agatha Church to another parish south of Miami, where there are fewer Nicaraguans among the parishioners.

A Church that feared being left without priests

The Venezuelan academic Edgard Beltrán, in an essay published in the magazine Law and Liberty, referred to “The Tribulations of the Nicaraguan Church.” Beltrán mentioned that “after Ortega expelled the apostolic nuncio Waldemar Sommertag, in March 2022, the bishops became the only representatives of the Vatican in the country. Therefore, they play the role of negotiators on behalf of the Pope… Secondly, they simply fear that saying too much will lead to even greater persecution against the Church and therefore leave the faithful without priests and bishops to guide them in faith,” Beltrán wrote.

But he continued his article with a lapidary statement. “However, silence has not diminished the persecution against the Church.”

Priests close to the regime instead of the exiled and a China-style relationship

Beyond the silence of the Church in Nicaragua and its banished bishops and priests, it is increasingly evident that the negotiation had greater scope and that Pope Francis gave in to pressure from the regime so that a scheme similar to the one that exists in China be implemented in Nicaragua. In China, the regime has the power to veto the appointments of bishops.

Just to mention two emblematic cases, Brenes appointed priests Antonio Castro and Boanerges Carballo a few weeks ago in parishes that were left without priests after the regime’s offensive. Carballo is the brother of Monsignor Bismark Carballo, who after being humiliated by the Sandinista regime in the 1980s, is now close to Ortega and refuses to criticize or question the government.

Castro, for his part, has been an open supporter of Ortega since the 1980s, and has celebrated masses for the soul of Hugo Chávez.

And it remains to be seen how the decimated episcopal conference will be recomposed; at this point, of 10 dioceses, there are three without bishops, Matagalpa, Siuna and Estelí, while the Archdiocese of Managua does not have an auxiliary bishop within the country.

Call for “bigger and louder condemnation” fell on deaf ears

When it is clear that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church of Nicaragua and the Vatican itself have accepted the regime’s interference in the decisions of the Church, the fear of many has been confirmed.

Following the confiscation of the UCA, Jesuit priest John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, stated in an article published in The Washington Post that “Ortega’s attempts to extinguish Catholicism in Nicaragua merit a global condemnation on a much larger and louder scale.”

Jenkins states that he “would not accept anything less than the full restoration of the right of the Church to appoint its bishops and do its ministerial and charitable work.”

He recognizes that Nicaragua may not be getting the attention it deserves due to competition from other conflicts, such as Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan.

“The actions of the Ortega regime against the Church are an insult against religious freedom and individual rights,” Jenkins said in an interview with La Prensa. “The regime is more likely to feel pressure from government leaders, so I hope that broader and louder condemnation will come from nations that value freedom and religious freedom.”

Nicaragua alongside totalitarian regimes

As a result of persecution against the Church, Nicaragua has fallen in international rankings to places alongside regimes such as Russia, China and India, where freedom of religion and conscience is limited and violated using mechanisms that have now been implemented in Nicaragua by the regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo.

Frederick Davie is the current deputy director of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. Davie has known the situation of the Catholic Church under the Ortega governments for about 40 years. In the 1980s, Davie traveled to Nicaragua to learn more about the situation that the Catholic Church and some Protestant churches were experiencing. At that time he met Ortega in New York, who was participating in a General Assembly of the United Nations. Murillo accompanied Ortega on that trip.

“Almost 40 years later, it is extremely disappointing the direction that these two people have taken, President Ortega and Vice President Murillo, and the levels of oppression they have carried out on their people when they were supposed to establish a new era of freedom and opportunity for the people of Nicaragua,” said Davie, in an interview from Washington.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom is responsible for monitoring religious freedom around the world. This commission prepares a list of countries where it considers that freedom of religion is being violated and makes recommendations to the State Department on sanctions to be adopted to pressure those responsible for the repression.

On January 4, on the recommendation of said Commission, the Secretary of State of the United States, Antony Blinken, designated Nicaragua as a “country of particular interest for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom.” That is the worst designation that can be made of a country, Davie explained.

The Commission knows in detail the different attacks that the regime has launched against the Catholic Church, its priests, bishops, orders of nuns, parishioners, media and universities.

“We see a very severe violation of religious freedom in Nicaragua and we want to ensure that the US government uses all the tools at its disposal to address these issues and to get the government to cease and desist from repressing the rights of the people to exercise their freedom of religion,” Davie said.

Masaya 28 de Agosto del 2019. policia orteguista asedia la iglesia san miguel, donde se realizaba una homilia por los presos politicos .LA PRENSA.Roberto Fonseca

Can we expect stronger sanctions?

Davie explained that among the sanctions applied to date there have been visa cancellations for people from the Managua regime directly involved in the repression against the Catholic Church. But sanctions of this type have been applied since the repression of the 2018 protests without having managed to produce a change in the government’s attitude.

Davie mentions another type of sanctions that could make the situation of the regime more difficult, but that would nevertheless affect the country’s economy and deepen the poverty of the already most vulnerable: blocking loans and donations from the international community to Nicaragua.

“We have called on the United States government and any other international institution to increase scrutiny of any loan or technical assistance from international financial institutions to Nicaragua,” Davie explained. “This is possible and I believe that the United States government and governments around the world committed to freedom of religion and conscience need to use these instruments and procedures at their disposal to go directly against the individuals and agencies in Nicaragua responsible for this repression. ”.

And despite Washington’s sporadic rhetoric against the Ortega regime, loans from organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank (WB), and the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI), of which The United States is not part, they have continued to flow into the regime’s coffers.

During last year, Nicaragua received some 682.9 million dollars from bilateral financial and cooperating organizations, the vast majority coming from CABEI. The World Bank contributed 47.7 million dollars and the IDB 40.2 million.

“If they focus on the loans to Nicaragua, on other types of grants that the International Community grants to Nicaragua, they could begin to exert the level of pressure on the government that, over time, will result in the government stopping this level of repression against the people of Nicaragua,” Davie explained.

The State Department, for its part, maintains its criticism of Nicaragua, but shows no signs of preparing different sanctions that would stop repression in Nicaragua.

“We remain very concerned about the regime’s continued harassment of Jesuits, Catholic clergy and other religious practitioners,” a State Department spokesperson told La Prensa. “We reiterate our calls

urging the government to promote the safety of clergy and parishioners, as well as security in all places of religious worship.”

But calls from Davie and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom have not yet achieved greater scrutiny of loans and donations from financial organizations to Nicaragua. Not even despite the fact that many of the funds managed by the IDB, IMF and the World Bank originate in the United States.

In short, although there may be a lot of rhetoric, in reality the regime, at least for the moment, has gained the upper hand over the Church. He has decimated the Episcopal Conference, he has expelled the Nuncio, three bishops, including Báez, and every priest he wanted; During this time of Lent, the most important period for Catholics, the processions cannot take to the streets as has been the tradition, and the regime has not had to pay any consequences. Murillo’s reasons for boasting are clear.

English Iglesia Católica libre Nicaragua archivo

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