Nicaraguan president calls church dictatorship, bishops ‘murderers’

MEXICO CITY — Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has called Catholic leaders a “gang of murderers,” in comments amplifying church persecution and dismissing Pope Francis’ call for dialogue in the Central American country.

In a fiery speech, Ortega took aim at Nicaragua’s Catholic bishops for promoting democracy as a way out of the country’s political crisis, alleging without evidence that they called on protesters to kill him during the 2018 protests – that his regime was violently repressed.

He called the bishops and Pope Francis “the perfect dictatorship,” then asked accusingly, “Who elected the bishops, the pope, the cardinals?”

He continued in the September 28 speech marking the 43rd anniversary of the national police: “With what moral authority do we speak of democracy? Let them start with the Catholic vote. … Everything is imposed. It is a dictatorship, the perfect dictatorship. It is a tyranny, the perfect tyranny.

Catholic clergy in Nicaragua have remained mostly silent as Ortega – who won the 2021 election after disqualifying and jailing opposition candidates – has persecuted priests and bishops speaking out on rights issues rights and democratic deterioration. The government has also shut down church-run charitable and educational initiatives, as well as Catholic radio stations, and expelled priests and nuns, including the Missionaries of Charity.

Ortega claimed in his comments that he was Catholic, but felt unrepresented, in part because “we hear about democracy, and they don’t practice democracy.”

The comments come as Bishop Rolando Álvarez de Matagalpa remains under house arrest after being forcibly removed from the diocesan curia on August 19. The priests arrested with him in the pre-dawn raid are still being held in the notorious El Chipote prison, where the regime keeps its political prisoners.

“What ignorance! Such lies and such cynicism. A dictator giving lessons in democracy,” tweeted Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Baez of Managua, who left the country for security reasons in 2019. “Someone exercising power illegitimately, criticizing authority that Jesus gave to his church; someone who is an atheist, regretting not feeling represented by the church.

Pope Francis broke his silence on Nicaragua on August 21, calling for an “open and sincere” dialogue.

He told reporters on September 15: “There is a dialogue. This does not mean that we approve of everything the government does or that we disapprove of it. »

The Pope also urged the Nicaraguan government to allow the return of the Missionaries of Charity and defended the former Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, who was expelled from Nicaragua.

Ortega served as the first president between 1979 and 1990 after the Sandinista movement overthrew then-dictator Anastasio Somoza. He went on to win the 2006 election and won several re-elections – although the 2021 vote was condemned as a sham by international observers and unrecognized by countries like the United States.

In his speech – which included denunciations of other international critics and a defense of North Korea’s nuclear testing – Ortega disparaged US Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols, calling it a racial slur beginning with N and making fun of her appearance.

Observers say Ortega’s relationship with the Catholic Church has been complicated during Ortega’s two presidencies — particularly with the late Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo. Ortega promised to visit the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe if he returned to power, and in 2007 he headed straight for the Marian shrine after landing at Mexico City airport.

Journalist Carlos F. Chamorro, director of the Nicaraguan newspaper Confidentialsays the church came into confrontation with Ortega after some priests and bishops showed support for protesters who called for Ortega’s ousting in 2018, opening their parishes to injured people or fleeing priests and paramilitaries.

Chamorro said Catholic Press Service Ortega “aims to close the last remaining civic space in the country, which is the space of freedom of conscience, freedom to preach, and religious freedom.”

Martha J. Finley