Shaky video footage shows priests processing with the Blessed Sacrament through the low-walled streets of Sébaco. This is no ordinary day in the Nicaraguan city: a street battle is raging. As the priests walk, others join in, their heads lowered as if braced for impact. They are heading straight into the heart of conflict. The grainy film, obtained by the Catholic Herald from human rights activists in Nicaragua, then takes a disturbing turn. Gunshots ring out. But the procession still moves forward. A woman is kneeling in a doorway, crossing herself and weeping as she sees the Blessed Sacrament pass by.
In another video, recorded in the same city on the same day, priests move forwards hand in hand towards a group of police with riot shields. Suddenly there is a crack of bullets. A priest flinches, but quickly gathers himself and presses ahead. A female protester screams out to the police: “You wouldn’t dare to shoot one of our priests, would you?”
The footage was filmed in May, as forces loyal to Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega clashed with demonstrators calling for his removal. A month earlier Ortega had provoked a nationwide outcry when he issued a decree increasing workers’ pension contributions, amid a worsening economic crisis. Government forces responded brutally, killing more than 20 people in the first week of protests. That number has now reached more than 300 and continues to rise.
At first, Ortega invited the Church to mediate talks between the government and the protesters: a diverse group comprising students, businessmen and farmers. But as bishops began to intervene to protect demonstrators, the president turned on them. His forces have vandalised churches and shot at protesters who sought sanctuary inside them.
Last Thursday, on the anniversary of the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution, which Ortega helped to lead, the 72-year-old bitterly denounced the bishops. Churches, he claimed, were being used “to store weapons, to store bombs”.
“I thought they were mediators,” he said, “but no. They were committed to the coup-plotters, they were part of the plan with the coup-plotters.”
When Bishop Rolando Álvarez rushed to Sébaco that day in May, it was not to foment a coup. He wanted to defuse the crisis by celebrating a Mass in the city. The act would, he hoped, show his solidarity with a local priest, Fr Uriel Antonio Vallejos, who had been trying to avoid an all-out battle between protesters and paramilitaries – masked gunmen who appeared to be working for the government but wore no insignia.
A parish in the city, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, became a makeshift hospital for the wounded as Sébaco’s official health centre turned away injured protesters. By 8pm the doctor at the church, Francisco Aguirre, had treated as many as 16 people for gunshot wounds. Four of them were under 18.
Bishop Álvarez fiercely denounced the violence by government forces. But he also urged protesters not to respond in kind and called for peace talks between the two sides.
That has been the consistent position of Nicaragua’s bishops. But the Ortega regime has portrayed them, with increasing ferocity, as supporters of “terrorists”. This makes life ever more dangerous for the Church hierarchy.
Many of the protesters are conspicuously young. They are worried that they will have few prospects for work, given Nicaragua’s faltering economy, and little say in the country’s future as Ortega has systematically undermined the country’s democratic institutions. Many of them go out to protests with their family’s phone number written in big black ink on their arms, in case their luck runs out.
Many are grateful for the Church’s protection. They carry rosaries and crucifixes, and place statues of the Virgin Mary on top of barricades.
Earlier this month, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, Nicaragua’s most senior churchman, arrived in the town of Diriamba, 25 miles outside the capital, Managua. He was accompanied by his auxiliary, Bishop Silvio José Báez, and the Polish nuncio to Nicaragua, Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag.
They headed for the basilica, where a pro-government crowd had trapped protesters. As they entered the building, they were surrounded by a mob who began to jostle them. Bishop Báez was stabbed in the arm, punched in the stomach and had his episcopal insignia ripped off. But the trio managed to break free and were able to lead the protesters to safety.
Bishop Báez, who has almost 100,000 followers on Twitter, posted photos of his injury, adding: “I’m fine, thank God.” The message was shared around the world.
Thanks to his social media presence, the bishop has emerged as a spokesman for the Nicaraguan Church. On Monday, the New York Times quoted him as saying: “We continue to be pastors, and an authentic pastor of the Catholic Church will never side with the executioners. He will always be with the victims.”
The Vatican is watching with alarm as the Ortega government turns on the Church. Late last month, Pope Francis received Cardinal Brenes at the Vatican. The cardinal is a pastor who, in the Pope’s words, “smells of the sheep”. The Archbishop of Managua, with his wispy white hair, is famous for wearing a pair of jeans under his cassock.
His audience with the Pope was private, so we don’t know what the two men said. But shortly after the meeting Francis issued an appeal to the Nicaraguan government in his weekly Angelus address.
“I join my brother bishops of Nicaragua in expressing sorrow for the serious violence, with dead and wounded, carried out by armed groups to repress social protests,” the Pope said. “I pray for the victims and their families. The Church is always for dialogue, but this requires an active commitment to respect freedom and above all life. I pray that all violence should cease and the conditions for the resumption of dialogue [come] as soon as possible.”
Cardinal Brenes has returned from the Vatican more determined than ever. Last Sunday, he celebrated a Mass of reparation at a church that had been besieged by paramilitaries, in a clear rebuke of the government.
Whether the clash between the state and the Church escalates further now depends on the mercurial Daniel Ortega. His life could make a good film. Aged 15, he was imprisoned and tortured. After he was released in 1967 he arranged the murder of his torturer, Gonzalo Lacayo. He was imprisoned again in 1967, for holding up a Bank of America with a machine gun. While in prison he met the young poet Rosario Murillo.
The Sandinista coup of 1979 was cheered on by hip artists in the West. The punk band The Clash even named an album after them. Throughout the 1980s, Ortega resembled a socialist David to Washington’s Goliath – a left-wing rebel with a heart.
But he was voted out in 1990. During his time in the political wilderness, he was accused of sexual abuse by his stepdaughter, Zoilamérica – a charge he firmly denied. In 2005, he and Murillo renewed their vows in front of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. But the relationship remains controversial. Murillo is a fervent practitioner of New Age spirituality (her nickname is La Chamuca, “The Witch”).
While Ortega has displayed a ruthless ability to maintain power, he may have made a serious misjudgment when, in April, he ordered his forces to suppress protests against cuts in social care. Pensioners returned from their peaceful protests covered in bruises, heightening public rage at Ortega. The influential Organization of American States has condemned the crackdown, leaving Ortega increasingly isolated in the region and struggling to stabilise a fragile economy. Commentators argue that Nicaragua could follow Venezuela in becoming a socialist dystopia.
Will the ever more desperate Ortega consider turning his guns on the nation’s priests and bishops? It has happened before in Central America. In nearby El Salvador, for example, six Jesuits were murdered in 1989.
But for now the Nicaraguan clergy are held in such high esteem that their cassocks are like bulletproof vests. With the Holy See standing firmly behind them, they are exerting a kind of holy power: holding a turbulent, faith-filled country together during its worst crisis for decades.
Miguel Cullen is the Catholic Herald’s Latin America editor
This article first appeared in the July 27 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here