MS Risk Blog

Nicaragua: a repressive regime towards Catholics

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Daniel Ortega’s regime maintains constant and violent pressure on its population, and in particular it has targeted the Catholic Church since 2018, which it has accused of supporting the opposition, spreading false news, and conspiring against the state. In 2023, it is highly likely that the Nicaraguan regime will seek to silence Catholics in order to maintain its power and it is probable that the anti-Catholic measures will maintain a status quo in the next 6 months. It is also likely that neighboring countries will not take concrete action against Nicaragua in the next 6 months or be directly affected by the repression. The measures against the Church are very specific to Nicaragua and it is unlikely that a similar situation will prevail in a Central American country such as Honduras or El Salvador, despite their undemocratic regimes.

Member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and President of the Republic of Nicaragua since 2007, Daniel Ortega has governed his country with authoritarianism. This authoritarianism took a more repressive and violent turn in April 2018, when major riots broke out in the streets, demanding social and political reforms. Out of fear for its power, the regime severely repressed the riots, resulting in hundreds of deaths, injuries, and arbitrary arrests. In a country with a Christian tradition, where 50% of the population claim to be Catholic, the Church has sought to mediate with the demonstrators and has never condemned the riots, sometimes even going so far as to give refuge. It was since been accused by the Ortega regime of spreading false news, fueling the demonstrations and conspiracy. The situation has only worsened since 2018, with international observers regularly expressing concern about attacks on press freedom, religious freedom and human rights, with the security forces not hesitating to arbitrarily arrest and sometimes torture anyone suspected of being an opponent of the regime. Daniel Ortega’s regime therefore meets with little resistance, and it is possible that the population is too afraid to demonstrate and revolt regarding the violence exerted.

In March 2023, a United Nations (UN) report went so far as to describe these violations as crimes against humanity, thereby demonstrating the scale of the repression. The NGO Nicaragua Nunca Más estimated that more than 50 religious leaders have fled Nicaragua because of the situation. Since 2018, at least 529 attacks against Catholics have been listed by Martha Patricia Molina, a researcher and lawyer, including 84 attacks the year of the anti-regime social riots, 80 in 2019, 59 in 2020, 55 in 2021, 161 in 2022 and 90 between January and April 2023, raising fears that 2023 will be even more repressive than 2022. The increase in actions taken in 2022 could be the result of a wider crackdown, not just on the Church but on opponents in general, as in February and March the authorities opened a series of trials held behind closed doors against political opponents. Catholic institutions and associations are dissolved one after the other by the regime. On 7 March this year, the Catholic University John Paul II and the Autonomous Christian University Association of Nicaragua (UCAN) were dissolved. According to the Nicaraguan Freedom Foundation, on 13 April, while religious processions were banned during Easter, the authorities confiscated a monastery in the town of San Pedro de Lóvago in the diocese of Juigalpa and arrested 20 people elsewhere in the country. On 18 May, Catholic University of the Immaculate Conception in Managua was also dissolved. People close to Bishop Rolando Álvarez, a mediatic critic of the regime who was sentenced to 26 years in prison last February and who refused to join the 222 political opponents released by the authorities, are also targets of pressure. On 3 April, the authorities expelled Donancio Alarcon, a Panamanian priest in charge of the parish of María Auxiliadora, diocese of Estelí, whose apostolic administrator was Bishop Rolando Alvarez himself. Although Donancio Alarcon is Panamanian, his expulsion did not arouse massive indignation in his home country. The effects on Nicaragua’s neighbours are negligible for the moment. On 18 May, Yonarqui de los Ángeles Martínez García, Bishop’s lawyer, had his license to practice law in the country revoked by the Supreme Court of Justice, without any reason being given. Later, on 27 May, the national police opened an investigation into several Catholic Church dioceses in the country on suspicion of money laundering and consequently froze several bank accounts, marking a significant step towards discrediting the Catholic Church and attacking its funding.

The rupture with the Church was consummated when on 12 March the authorities unilaterally closed the Vatican embassy in Managua and broke off all diplomatic relations with Rome. This measure only served to increase international pressure, as the Vatican sought to use its influence to win over other countries. As an example, on 21 April, the US bishops, through the USCCB Committee on International Justice, called on the US government to take action against the Ortega regime. On 11 May, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, has declared Nicaragua in a report as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) due to the increasing persecution of the Church and Catholics, a similar level shared with North Korea and China. Antony Blinken, US Secretary of State, officially condemned Ortega’s regime for its religious persecution in a speech a few days later, on 21 May, without explicitly announcing any sanctions. Few days later, on 31 May, John Kirby, National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications for the Biden administration condemned Ortega’s attempts to discredit the Church by accusing it of an illegal money laundering scheme. Despite the US support it has managed to obtain, the Vatican seems powerless to combat the repression in Nicaragua which seems set to last.