Ortega Supporters Videotape and Harass Catholic Priests

Illustration: Confidencial

Since 2018, Ortega loyalists keep an eye on the Eucharists of “hoodlum” priests, while Police harass parishes and threaten priests with jail time

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – The priest “Carlos” moved to a safer area inside the parish house, foreseeing that the police contingent that was patrolling his parish day and night could raid it at any moment. It was August when a new chapter of Ortega’s repression against the Catholic Church began, but this time more violent than in previous years, imprisoning priests, threatening them, desecrating temples and generating a wave of clergy in exile.

The priest’s caution was due to a recent precedent. On August 1, a police contingent violently entered the parish Jesús de la Divina Misericordia, in Sébaco, and kept priest Uriel Vallejos surrounded for three days. Father Carlos knew that he was being watched and that this kind of aggression could be repeated, this time against him.

A parishioner told Father Carlos that the police had sent him a message: “Tell your priest that if he does not shut up, we are going to move him”. The officer had threatened the woman when she rebuked him for the harassment of the parish house, while a group of Catholics recited the Rosary. “It was the first threat I received in the month of August, and already like this, in a direct way”, says Father Carlos, who has experienced the regime’s persecution since 2018 in two different parishes.

The escalation of aggressions against priests has caused several to flee the country, including Father Vallejos and Father Erick Diaz, both from the Diocese of Matagalpa, who were threatened with imprisonment.

61% of the population disagrees with the forced departure of clergy from Nicaragua due to government intimidation, according to the most recent survey by the Costa Rican firm CID Gallup, carried out between September 26 and October 10 via telephone calls to 1,200 people over 16 years of age. Only 18% of those polled responded “somewhat or very much in agreement” with the exile of the clergy.

Forms of persecution against priests

Father Carlos agreed –on the condition of anonymity–  to share information about the strategies used by the Ortega government to intimidate him.  

The priest says he has been being watched since 2018, when he did not remain silent in the face of human rights violations, including the 355 deaths recorded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in the context of repression and massacres by the government against the civic rebellion that year.

“They called me a hoodlum, a coup plotter,” Carlos says. He received anonymous messages threatening his life: “We are going to shoot you”, “Your head is going to roll”. In recent months the threats reappeared: “We are going to kill you,” they told him. Or they threatened him with jail: “You are going to go to El Chipote.”

“They –the government party— have people who are Sandinistas infiltrate our churches,” warns the priest. Since 2018, fanatical “Orteguistas” have recorded his homilies and have created a list of priests who, according to them, have gotten into politics. “I denounced things that were wrong, nothing else, and that is not getting into politics,” Father Carlos clarifies. 

In his homilies Father Carlos denounced the injustices committed by the government in Nicaragua and questioned the abuse of power and the fanaticism of Ortega’s followers. He was one of the prophetic voices of the Catholic Church in a country controlled by a de facto police state imposed since 2018 by Ortega and Murillo.

“The Church is the first to raise its voice against a situation that is not correct,” says Carlos. “We are priests who defend the great postulates that God gave us: love, justice, mercy, charity, not taking advantage of the poor,” he explains.

The priest has identified different ways in which the ruling Sandinista party has harassed him and his parishioners:

1. Photographing parishioners in processions, even before processions were banned in some parts of the country. Police officers would stand at the front and take pictures of everyone, frightening the parishioners.

2. Increased police presence around the church, with a couple of police officers standing at each end of the parish, intimidating parishioners who had to overcome their fear to enter the church.

3. Photographing Catholics leaving Mass, which also increased “people’s fear of going to Mass,” says Carlos.

4. Harassing homes that hosted parish groups, with such persecution increasing starting in August. The police did not limit themselves to harassing the church and its surroundings, but also stationed themselves outside the houses where members of the church communities gathered to pray, and also to take photographs of them or exhort them to not continue congregating.

Starting in June and continuing up to the present, Ortega’s government has maintained a crusade against the Catholic Church which has included the detention of priests, including Rolando Álvarez, the bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa and apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Estelí, who, along with other clergy and laypeople, were blockaded inside the Episcopal Curia of Matagalpa for 15 days by a police contingent. He was then transferred to house arrest on August 19.

Condemnation of the closing of radio stations

Previamente, el Instituto Nicaragüense de Telecomunicaciones y Correos (Telcor), cerró una decena de radios católicas adscritas a la Diócesis liderada por Álvarez.…. 

Previously to blockade of the Curia , the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Post (Telcor), had closed 10 Catholic radio stations connected to the Diocese headed by Álvarez. The bishop questioned the decision, arguing that they had their documents in order.

“If the director of Telcor, Nahíma Díaz Flores, is willing to meet with me, I will bring her all the documents I presented to Telcor, with the signed acknowledgments of receipt. If Telcor is right, I myself will say in public that they are right, that they should close our radio stations, but if they are not right, they should have the courage to say that they were wrong or that they want to close our stations on purpose”, said the prelate with an annoyed tone, from the pulpit of the Cathedral of San Pedro de Matagalpa.

63% of the population is “not at all or only slightly in agreement” with the arbitrary closure of radio stations with purely Catholic content, which has also been condemned as another aggression against freedom of expression, according to the results of the aforementioned CID Gallup poll.  

In addition to the illegal arrest of the bishop and several of his priests and collaborators, several priests were forced into exile.

Father Carlos’ security situation also worsened. Surveillance was reinforced and riot police were stationed in front of and behind the rectory, and on one occasion, a riot police and another police officer followed him while he went to do his errands. From that moment on, he avoided going out alone for security reasons.

Harassment of parish in the southeast

Intimidation of priests is widespread throughout the country, but clergy who agreed to speak to CONFIDENTIAL on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged there is much fear of denouncing such persecution.

In the southeast of the country, Father “Luis” has been harassed since 2018, when his parish became an improvised emergency room in the face of repression.

With the violent destruction of the roadblocks, which Daniel Ortega called “Operation Cleanup” and which was carried out by paramilitaries and police, Father Luis began to receive the first attacks: “coup plotter”, “murderer”. The reaction of the Ortega loyalists was consistent with the hate speech of Ortega and Murillo, who openly accused priests of participating in the “coup d’état”, as the Government calls the civic uprising of 2018.

For four years Father Luis has lived under threat of persecution. There were quiet months, but the last few he has been under full time surveillance. The paramilitaries and Ortega fanatics attended his masses and recorded them, stood outside the church and accompanied the processions to photograph the population. He says the infiltration by the Sandinista Front is not a recent strategy. Since 2018 he knew there were Ortega loyalists who were recording and watching his movements. 

In Father Luis’ case, the harassment increased starting in November 2021, when several priests denounced the electoral farce, in which Ortega secured a fourth consecutive presidential term for himself after imprisoning opposition candidates and political leaders for “treason against the homeland”.

The police increased their harassment of the parish. Outside there were two patrols and paramilitaries watching Luis’ movements. They threatened him directly: from the church he would go straight to jail, he recalls being warned. 

Priests “Carlos” and “Luis” assert that their situations are not isolated. Many parish priests suffer the same harassment, although they are afraid to denounce it, and there are clergy who choose to remain silent to avoid this type of persecution.

Police control

On three occasions, a police chief visited Father Carlos. The most recent visit was in early September. The officer wanted to force the priest to inform him about all his daily activities, the communities he visited, and to give him the names and telephone numbers of the delegates of the word.

“You want me to give you my agenda,” Father Carlos, surprised by the officer’s demand.

“Yes, give me your address book,” the policeman confirmed.

The priest protested. In what he insisted was a cordial tone, he told the officer he was not willing to give him any information, that this act was an abuse of authority and incorrect. 

Father Carlos admits that he was afraid of being imprisoned, after seeing the latest authoritarian actions of Ortega’s government against the Church. “Who wants to suffer [jail]? Nobody, but when I went to pray to the Blessed Sacrament –Lord help me, give me strength–, I felt God’s strength, my fear went away, I felt very good, very happy because I knew I was doing the right thing. I am carrying the cross of the Lord”, says the priest, comforted.

Father Luis has managed to continue celebrating mass with the police outside, aware that at any moment they could enter the church. He says that the “strength of the Holy Spirit” gives him the courage to continue with his ministry and “pray for the people who are harassing us”.

“Have you thought about going into exile?” he was asked.

“There are times when I think about it,” he replies. And then he adds: “I think that to leave would be to abandon what the Lord has given me, but He has to tell me that.”

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