A democratic state must respect and tolerate any religious beliefs and investigate attacks like the ones perpetrated against the Catholic Church.
By Bonifacio Miranda Bengoechea (Confidencial)
HAVANA TIMES – In the past weeks, there’ve been several attacks on Catholic houses of worship in different parts of the Nicaraguan territory. This has created an atmosphere of general unease. To fully understand what’s happening, I’d like to offer a brief review of the principal occurrences of the last two years, underlining the important role the Catholic Church has played in the search for a way out of the current crisis.
The Church in 2018
The military quelling of the April insurrection had repercussions for the upper hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The bishops had acted as mediators during the National Dialogue, trusting that they could find a peaceful solution to the crisis. Nonetheless, the regime deceived them: shortly after reestablishing control, they struck out against the bishops, accusing them of being “coup promoters.” They took particular aim at Monsignor Silvio Baez, who represented those that had held firm in working towards a peaceful change in the government.
In a meeting held in the Casa de los Pueblos, in Managua, on June 7, 2018, the bishops presented a Road Map for the democratization of the country. Daniel Ortega responded with evasive statements, while at the same time organizing the paramilitary army that, in June and July of that year, would militarily demolish the blockades and squash the popular protests.
In his speech in celebration of his victory on July 19, 2018, Daniel Ortega reaffirmed his frontal attack against the bishops. “I thought that they were mediators. But no, they were committed with the coup plotters, they were part of the coup plotters’ plan.”
By the coincidences of Providence, the arrival of our new Apostolic Nuncio, Stanislaw Waldemar Sommertag, coincided with the ebbing of the popular struggle. In the face of the retreat of the popular rebellion and the regime’s attacks, the Vatican opted to prioritize diplomatic relations.
Sommertag maintained a public position of conciliation and moderation. With that change in direction, the bishops gradually entered into a kind of lethargy that was momentarily broken in March 2019.
The Church leaves the National Dialogue in 2019
Due to a combination of national and international factors, large capital and the regime, with Sommertag’s approval, came to an agreement. Between March and April of 2019, a new National Dialogue was promoted. However, the situation was totally different from that of 2018. The regime had managed to recover control and to impose the retreat of the popular movement.
In a statement dated March 4, 2019, the Episcopal Council of Nicaragua (CEN), reminded both sides that “If they need any services from the CEN, both sides were asked to submit the respective letters of invitation; since up until this moment, we haven’t received any correspondence with respect to this, we understand that we’re not ineludibly needed for said negotiations..”
The letter of invitation never arrived. As was to be expected, the regime vetoed the bishops’ participation, and they had to step back. The bishops sensed, at an opportune moment, the regime’s intentions, and didn’t want to lend themselves to a farse. Time has proven them right: despite producing two signed agreements that never materialized, the National Dialogue once again failed, due to the regime’s intransigence.
Monsignor Baez exiled
Although the CEN is a collegial organization of equals, there’s no doubt that Monsignor Silvio Baez exercised an influential leadership. This began to decline in mid-2018, with the defeat of the popular protests. Baez disappeared from the scene when he went into exile in April 2019.
The Vatican justified his exile, arguing that they had knowledge of an attempt against his life that was being organized, something that can’t really be discounted. In reality, though, the exit of Monsignor Baez had long been a demand of the regime. His head was delivered over on a silver platter, in order to breathe life into the negotiations of the second National Dialogue, which also failed.
Monsignor Baez isn’t living in Rome, but in the United States, where he’s sheltered in the St. Agatha Church in Miami, Florida.
Moderate and conciliatory pastoral messages
In 2019, the pastoral letters and messages became fewer, as well as the statements from the Catholic Church. After the failure of the second National Dialogue, barely three pastoral messages were issued: on May 1st, September 15th and November 28 of 2019.
In the context of the hunger strike held in November 2019 in the San Miguel Archangel Church in Masaya, by mothers demanding the freedom of their children who were political prisoners, there were attacks on a number of churches, especially in Managua and Matagalpa.
In their November 2019 pastoral message, the bishops recognized that “we live in a society lacerated by profound divisions and ruptures, where somber faces abound, in eloquent testimony to the deep despair, suffering and sadness which many men and women of today’s Nicaragua are going through.” (CEN, 11/28/19)
In 2020, the pastoral messages from the bishops were very moderate, the majority of them concentrated on the pandemic and its effects. They called for social distancing and for compliance with the recommendations of the World Health Organization. They closed the churches as a measure for avoiding the spread of the virus.
The message issued in May 2020 even urged “the leaders and all sectors of the country to open themselves up to alliances and consensus to seek and find alternatives and joint solutions that can avoid greater human catastrophe.” (CEN 5/25/2020)
However, as the CEN was decreasing their pastoral messages, probably because the bishops couldn’t reach agreement, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Managua Archdiocese began emitting a series of statements that, to a certain extent, filled the existing vacuum. These were pronouncements about the need to recover the civil liberties and to guarantee that the next electoral process would be free and democratic.
The American Enterprise Institute and the interview with Bishop Mata
Two factors probably unleashed the fury of the fanatic groups that are attacking the churches, operating in impunity from the shadows.
The first was the publication by the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a private entity, of an extensive investigation by Rayn C. Berg entitled: “Restoring democracy in Nicaragua”. This paper advances the theory that the economic crisis and negligence of the Ortega-Murillo regime in the management of the pandemic has created a power vacuum, similar to that created by the 1972 earthquake. This vacuum, the paper continues, could be filled by a National Emergency Committee, in which the Catholic Church should participate.
Without mincing words, Berg writes: “After encouraging a minimum of unity within the Nicaraguan opposition, the United States diplomacy should urge the formation of a National Emergency Committee, [made up of] the opposition and civil society, together with an alliance of medical associations and the Catholic Church. These can fill the leadership vacuum in Managua… It would be prudent of the National Emergency Committee to consider including the Catholic Church, especially given that it’s been spearheading the struggle for restoring democracy in Nicaragua.”
The second factor was the interview offered by Monsignor Abelardo Mata, secretary of the CEN. In this, he warned, among other things: “Many people don’t even have enough to eat. There’s going to be a crisis here, a new outburst, a ferocious social explosion, because hunger is a very bad counselor.” (Trinchera de la Noticia, 7/20/2020)
These two factors triggered the fury of the paramilitary groups against the Catholic temples. With their actions, they aim to frighten the bishops, and also have a dissuasive effect on the discontented population, so that they don’t participate in possible new outbreaks of social protest.
Freedom and religious tolerance
The attacks on the religious symbols of the Catholic Church put us face to face with the need not only to demand an exhaustive investigation, but also to add new slogans to the democratic struggle: respect and tolerance for all religious beliefs.