Ortega’s Siege on Catholics Dampens Holy Week in Nicaragua

The Ortega regime aimed its repressive policy against the Catholic Church, in a Holy Week under complete police besiegement.  Photo: Taken from social networks.

Civic and human right organizations warn that most of the latest kidnapped are linked to the Catholic Church.

By Confidencial

HAVANA TIMES – At least 20 Nicaraguans were kidnapped by Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship during the first ten days of April, most during Holy Week, a period in which the dictatorship prohibited processions and religious celebrations in the streets.

The persecution against the Catholic Church was translated into greater intimidation, threats, and police besiegement against parishes throughout the national territory, confirmed the organization Urnas Abiertas, which fears that this situation will worsen as the fifth anniversary of the Civic 2018 Rebellion, of April 18, 2023, approaches.

Every year, since the social outbreak of the civic struggle in 2018, the Ortega regime intensifies the persecution and besiegement against opponents, former prisoners, local leaders, or anyone who had any connection with the civic protests of five years ago.

However, in 2023, the policy of terror imposed by the Ortega government has mostly focused on the Catholic Church, and proof of this is that most of those imprisoned have some relation with the religious institution, says Ivania Alvarez, member of Urnas Abiertas and who has monitored the arrests, which she describes as “illegitimate and arbitrary.”

Leaders within the Church “are the target of the dictatorship,” notes Alvarez, who assures that in previous years, the victims of threats and imprisonment were more diverse: organized civil society, opponents, business organization leaders, etc. The regime focused its interest on the Church because it is the last remnant of resistance, recognized as a safe space for parishioners, who exercised their right to express themselves through faith, notes Alvarez.

The Ortega Police began by banning the processions of the Way of the Cross in mid-February 2023, and then extended the restriction to any expression of popular piety. That meant a hard blow to the  Nicaraguan Catholic parishioners, accustomed to live Holy Week with multiple processions in the streets.

The priests complied with the order and cancelled pilgrimages on a national scale prior to Holy Week. They asked parishioners to abide by the new conditions, pray and strengthen their faith. They advised that all religious acts during Holy Week be carried out inside the temples and to avoid expressing themselves directly on the frontal attacks of the Ortega regime against the Church. However, this was not enough for the regime which imposed its repressive power outside several parishes in the country.

The objective is clear: to block any popular religious activity

Dozens of parishioners rebelled against the police prohibition and defied them in Nindiri, Nandaime, Chinandega and other departments, where young people wearing robes and carrying crosses tried to recreate the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The persecution against these parishioners ended with the arrest of four people in Nindiri and two in Nandaime.

“It is as if the Police wants to set an example or show what is going to happen to anyone who decides to not comply with the authoritarian and arbitrary orders that they are imposing in the country,” says researcher Martha Patricia Molina, who in 2022 registered 160 attacks by the regime against the Church.

“The dictatorship started 2023 since January 1st, aggressively, with more frontal attacks. Just in Holy Week I have registered the prohibition and suspension of more than 3176 processions nationwide, a very significant number of aggressions, considering that each diocese has its own processions each one of the days of Holy Week,” expressed the researcher.

The Ortega regime increased the repression imposed against the Church since Holy Thursday, when it ruled that no parish could hold any procession around the church, as they had been doing in some areas of the country. Thus, the traditional procession of Way of the Cross and the Holy Burial took place inside the parishes, with the massive presence of Catholic devotees.

Urnas Abiertas reported acts of intimidation of churches in the country’s north, center and Caribbean, pointing out that in some extreme cases, the Police parked patrol cars outside the parishes, and “in a vulgar manner” sounded the siren.

The activities organized by the Catholic Church on church property were well attended despite the police besiegement. Photo: Confidencial / social networks.

Ortega’s extremism grows in April

Five years after the outbreak of the civil protests, repressed with deadly repression by the Ortega dictatorship, the result left 355 fatalities according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), more than 500,000 exiled and the imposition of a de facto police state. Nonetheless, “the memory of April (2018) continues to worry them,” points out Gonzalo Carrion, member of the Nicaragua Never Again Human Rights Collective.

“These arrests are the expression of a war against the Catholic Church and it is the nature of tyranny,” which prescribes “prison, exile and the cemetery.” Carrion has been directly attacked by Ortega, making him “stateless” for exercising the defense of human rights. He believes the regime cannot cease repression because it is the only way they sustain themselves in power. “They are making use of the terror machine.”

The report by the Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua (GHREN) determined that Ortega and Murillo lead the execution of crimes against humanity from 2018 to date. The experts called on the international community to activate universal justice to stop the violations of human rights and achieve individual justice.

Alvarez explains that in these arrests the regime “has not spared” even its own people, since some of the detainees are akin to his Sandinista party. From this it can be derived that any person can be a victim of repression. The opponent stressed that these arrests do not have any legal basis and have been characterized as violent.

“The persecution is complete against those who oppose the regime and are exercising some kind of leadership from their faith,” she said.

Ortega went on the offensive against the Church in mid-2022, jailing more than a dozen religious persons, among them, Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, sentenced to 26 years in prison by the Ortega justice system after refusing to be exiled last February.

The regime has closed Catholic communication media, expelled priests and nuns and finally, suspended diplomatic relations with the Vatican, after Pope Francis called the Ortega regime a “shameless dictatorship”.

The experts consulted do not rule out a more repressive surge against the Church, including the closing of Catholic churches or greater control of those attending masses, which have been watched for months by operators of the Sandinista Front.

Dissident Juan Diego Barberena says the persecution of Ortega against the Church seeks to maintain control over public and social spaces in the framework of the fifth anniversary of the civic protests, and thus, prevent possible actions of resistance.

“What he intends to prevent is that citizens also manage to target their displeasure against the regime through religious activities, taking into account that the Catholic Church is on the side of truth and justice, and has taken a political position in these five years,” he expressed.

Uncertainty over political prisoners

As of March, the Ortega regime had 36 political prisoners, according to the Mechanism for the Recognition of Political Prisoners in Nicaragua. The legal situation of the more than 20 new prisoners incarcerated in these first days of April 2023 is unknown, since their relatives have not been able to talk to them and the reasons for their detentions have not been made public.

Alvarez hopes that they can be released, as has happened with some other Catholic laypeople, victims of quick arrests. This is because most of the kidnappings occurred in the context of Holy Week and it is not logical to apply to them the repressive laws that the Ortega justice system has used to open judicial cases against opposition citizens, considered “traitors to the homeland.”

The families of the detained are also fearful while hoping their loved ones will soon be free.

The following are the cases that are publicly known, as some names have been withheld from publication at the request of their families:

  • Anielka Garcia, originaria de Chichigalpa, Chinandega
  • Jose Angel Cerrato García, a dissident from Nindiri, Masaya
  • Three youth who protested the police prohibition on the traditional Los Cirineos procession in Nindiri, Masaya
  • Former political prisoner Olesia Muñoz
  • Student leader Jasson Noel Salazar Rugama
  • Víctor Ticay, a reporter for Channel 10 TV
  • Candido Sanchez Lopez, Luis Jose Ruiz Sanchez and a third person, all members of the Ciudadanos por la Libertad (CxL) party
  • Jimmy Bonilla y Enmanuel Gutierrez, from Nandaime
  • Former political prisoner Abdul Montoya
  • Juan Bruno Centeno Espinoza from El Jocote, Somoto

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