In Nicaragua, Crackdown on Religious Actors Further Imperils Return to Democracy
Regime’s assault on the Catholic Church is part of a campaign to consolidate power and chill dissent.
In recent months, Nicaragua’s government has escalated its effort to silence dissent by waging a systematic campaign of repression against the Catholic Church. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo’s crackdown on clergy and church-affiliated organizations critical of their authoritarian regime not only threatens Nicaragua’s religious freedom but also erects significant roadblocks to the country’s return to peace and democracy.
Historic Hostilities between Civil Society and the Nicaraguan Government
In August, Nicaraguan police forcibly closed seven Catholic radio stations and detained several clergymen who had spoken out against the Ortega regime. Rolando Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa, was among those detained for “organizing violent groups” and “carrying out acts of hate against the population.” Earlier this year, the Ortega regime expelled the papal nuncio, Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, and terminated the legal status of multiple church-affiliated civil society groups on dubious grounds.
Hostilities between the church and the Ortega regime started escalating following Nicaragua’s 2018 political crisis. In April of that year, anti-government protests erupted countrywide calling for democratic reforms to a myriad of economic and social issues, as well as Ortega’s resignation. The Nicaraguan government responded with brutal force, with human rights groups recording extralegal detentions, torture of political prisoners, attacks on independent media and hundreds of deaths. By the year’s end, Ortega had suppressed the anti-government movement and began doubling down on efforts to secure his tenure as president for life. Government agents continued to curtail press freedom and dismantled more than 1,000 civil society groups through an abusive “foreign agents” law.
Before the 2018 crisis, with notable exceptions, the Nicaraguan government recognized clergy members’ freedom of conscience and role as respected authorities for many Nicaraguans. Indeed, Ortega initially asked the church to mediate dialogues between his government and the protesters calling for its ouster. However, when churches became sanctuaries for nonviolent action against the government and individual clergy grew vocal in their criticism of the government’s democratic backsliding, the Ortega regime branded the church an enemy. Prominent prelates such as Bishops Silvio Baez and Abelardo Mata Guevara faced death threats and charges of insurrection, forcing some to restrict their pastoral work and others into exile. Churches and parishioners who provided humanitarian relief to anti-government protesters, notably young people and students, were attacked and intimidated by government agents and their citizen allies.
In 2021, Ortega won re-election in a landslide after jailing his opponents and disbanding their political parties. Since then, the regime has assaulted the church as part of its campaign to consolidate power. The recent detention of Álvarez, an influential religious leader and symbolic voice of the opposition nationally, is just one example of how far the Ortega regime has been willing go to silence its critics. In another act of hostility toward the church just a week before Álvarez’s detention, Nicaraguan police banned a major Catholic processional for “internal security reasons,” a cancellation unprecedented in the last three decades. Further, in addition to forcing Catholic radio stations off the airwaves, Nicaragua’s government stripped funding from and terminated the legal status of several church-affiliated civil society actors. The affected organizations include the Missionaries of Charity, an order established by Mother Theresa, and the Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), an epicenter of anti-government demonstrations in 2018.
Earlier this year, the Ortega-controlled National Assembly sanctioned a report branding church leadership as coup mongers and paving the way for the government to prosecute clergy who “sow hate” for the regime among their congregations.
Return to Peace and Democracy in Doubt
The Nicaraguan government’s assault on the church casts a shadow on an already grim outlook for Nicaragua’s return to peace and democracy. The regime’s hostility toward clergy and church organizations is part of a larger project to consolidate power and produce a chilling effect on dissent. By targeting influential, highly visible critics like Álvarez and sowing fear among parishioners through church surveillance, government actors are sending a clear message to the Nicaraguan public about the dangers of speaking out. Meanwhile, the government’s attacks on religious spaces of political deliberation and protest, including the Catholic press and universities, undercut democratic infrastructures that could one day support Nicaragua’s transition out of authoritarianism and post-conflict peacebuilding.
Indeed, the church has at times played a critical role in Nicaragua and other Latin American countries as a defender of peace amidst conditions of repression. In Nicaragua, where 90% of the population is Christian, of whom 73% identify as Catholic, the Catholic Church has historically enjoyed widespread public confidence. As such, at critical junctures in Nicaraguan history, clergy have been able to mediate conflicts across political divides. For example, while the church initially backed the Somoza dictatorship that governed Nicaragua from 1936 to 1979, clergy like the late Bishop Miguel Obando y Bravo negotiated prisoner swaps between the Somozas and their Sandinista opponents and eventually helped delegitimize the Somoza regime through prominent pastoral letters. Following the 2018 protests, it was church leaders (many of whom now face persecution) who mediated and witnessed two national dialogues between government and opposition actors.
Religious Actors Have Played a Key Role in the Transition from War to Peace
The church and clergy have played a similar peacebuilding role outside Nicaragua. For instance, the Vatican has successfully mediated sensitive disputes across the globe, from deescalating military clashes between Chile and Argentina over the Beagle Channel in 1985 to interrupting 40 years of political impasse to facilitate the 2014 thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations. Through religious orders, universities and faith-based organizations, clergy and faithful have also played a key role in protecting pockets of peace and justice in times of conflict. For example, female peacebuilders in Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Philippines worked to train their communities in nonviolent action and support victims’ healing during conflicts in those countries in the 20th and 21st centuries. Finally, religious actors have often lent legitimacy and solemnity to post-conflict transitional justice processes. For instance, clergy were the impetus or stood at the helm of truth commissions in Guatemala, Colombia and South Africa.
These examples, just few of many, illustrate how religious actors are often uniquely poised as symbolic and practical leaders in peacebuilding, peacemaking and in reconciliation processes. The Ortega regime’s hostility toward the church, one of the last remaining institutional bastions of opposition against the regime, is therefore especially concerning.
Still, even amid increasingly repressive conditions, the Nicaraguan Church continues to find opportunities to defend peace and democracy. Local clergy continue to protect religious forums of organization and protest in acts of resistance against the government’s increasing co-optation and disruption of religious space. For example, after the government banned the annual procession of the Virgin of Fatima, hundreds of Nicaraguans attended a heavily policed mass in Managua after which Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes asked the faithful to “forgive them Lord, because they know not what they do.” Meanwhile, Nicaraguan clergy in exile and prelates from North and South America and Spain have raised their voices to call for democracy in Nicaragua and the release of Álvarez and his colleagues, several of whom have now been jailed in the notorious El Chipote prison.
Looking Toward Peace and Inclusion in Nicaragua
The Vatican had been notably silent on Nicaragua until Álvarez’s detention, after which both Pope Francis and the Vatican’s permanent observer to the Organization of American States, Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz Serrano, called for peaceful dialogue in the country. The Holy See seemed to shy away from a forceful condemnation of the Ortega regime, a fact that was met with public criticism but could reflect the pope’s desire to keep diplomatic back channels open with the Nicaraguan government should future opportunities for dialogue arise.
External support for Nicaraguan peacebuilders — both lay and religious, at home and in exile — is vital. It will be these civil society actors who will continue to hold the Ortega regime accountable for its abuses and who will form the backbone of a future peaceful, democratic Nicaragua.
Savarni Sanka is a visiting research assistant for the Latin America Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.