In the latest move against the Catholic Church and government opponents in Nicaragua, the government of President Daniel Ortega has reportedly banned the traditional public processions of the Way of the Cross in all parishes in the country.
During Lent, and also on Good Friday, the ritual will take place inside churches and not in public venues.
The move comes in the context of President Ortega’s escalating crackdown against the Nicaraguan Church, and follows the widespread outcry over the recent sentencing of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa to 26 years’ imprisonment and the deportation to the United States of 222 political opponents.
They have all been stripped off citizenship along with other 94 Nicaraguan citizens, including the exiled Auxiliary Bishop Silvo José Baez, of Managua, and a priest from Matagalpa.
Bishops accused of "grave crimes and horrors"
Tensions between the Sandinista regime and the Catholic Church reached its peak last week when, in a speech for the 89th anniversary of the killing of Nicaraguan national hero Augusto Sandino, President Ortega launched an unprecedented attack against the Church, accusing the Catholic hierarchy of "grave crimes and horrors" and of supporting dictator Somoza, who was ousted by the Sandinista Revolution in 1979.
In his address to the nation, Ortega also accused the papacy of having supported Italian dictator Mussolini, and the Vatican of being a “mafia organization”.
“I don't believe in popes or kings: who chooses the Pope?” he said. “If we want to talk about democracy, the people should first elect priests and the bishops”, and “even the Pope” should be “elected by direct vote and not by the organized mafia in the Vatican."
Worldwide solidarity with the Church in Nicaragua
Ortega’s ranting came in the wake of Pope Francis’ appeal for Nicaragua on 12 February. During the Angelus prayer, the Pope said he was praying for Bishop Álvarez, “for those who have been deported to the United States, and for all those who suffer in the beloved nation of Nicaragua”, adding his voice to the many expressions of solidarity with the Church in Nicaragua from across the world.
In his speech, Ortega made no mention of the 222 exiles, nor of Bishop Álvarez's recent sentencing to 26 years of prison for treason.
In recent days, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (Cenidh) called for the immediate release of the prelate, saying he is "unjustly detained". The group denounced that, since his imprisonment in La Modelo security prison, there has been no news about him, and no family visits have been allowed. According to the organization his life is in danger.
US Bishops' support to Church in Nicaragua
Following Pope Francis’ appeal, the US Bishops too have expressed their solidarity with the Church in Nicaragua.
In a statement last week, the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio, thanked the Catholic community in the United States for the warm welcome given to the Nicaraguan exiles.
“At this dark hour, courageous hope, charity, and solidarity are bearing witness to the enduring vitality of the faith of the people of Nicaragua and among Catholics worldwide supporting the Nicaraguan faithful”, Archbishop Broglio said, urging he U.S. government and other partners “to continue to pursue the release of Bishop Álvarez and the restoration of human rights in Nicaragua.”
Increasing attack against the Church between 2018-2022
Relations between the Ortega administration and the Nicaraguan Church deteriorated again after the wave of anti-regime protests that were brutally suppressed by the government in 2018.
Despite attempts to mediate in the crisis, bishops were ultimately banned from mediating, and accused by Ortega of being "putschists" for giving refuge to wounded demonstrators during protests that, according to human rights groups, left at least 328 people dead.
Relations further worsened after the controversial 2021 elections which confirmed the Sandinista leader for another mandate.
Since the outbreak of the crisis the Church has been the target of several attacks and desecrations, as well as harassment and intimidations of bishops and priests.
Between April 2018 and October 2022, the Nicaraguan regime has allegedly carried out 396 attacks against the Catholic Church of Nicaragua, ranging from offensive paintings in churches to physical attacks, exiles, and arrests.