The Nicaraguan police arrested Rolando Álvarez, bishop of Matagalpa and staunch critic of Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship. The arrest took place last Friday (26) after a two-week standoff over the episcopal residence. He was arrested along with eight other people, including other priests of the Catholic Church, after being prevented from celebrating mass in the cathedral of the seventh largest city in the country. This arrest and repression against the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has an aspect that is often condemned and another that is often ignored, although it should not be.
The government accuses Álvarez of “organizing violent groups and inciting them to them to carry out acts of hatred against the population (…) with the aim of destabilizing the Nicaraguan State”. The bishop, who criticizes human rights violations by the Ortega government, is yet another figure in the Catholic Church who has suffered persecution in the country in recent years. Churches have been surrounded and priests have been detained in recent weeks. Radios, newspapers and television stations linked to the church were closed.
Catholic charities are on the list of NGOs that were closed by order of the government and the papal nuncio, the diplomatic representative of the Holy See, was expelled from the country. These are the main examples of repression, which needs and must be condemned. Freedom of belief, the inviolability of temples and free speech by priests are societal pillars that need to be protected, even in times of war or crisis. A priest, a bishop, a pastor, a rabbi, an imam, a babalorixá, the representative of any religion, must have the right to celebrate their rites and communicate with their peers.
It must also have the right to do so in security, without State interference. This is one of the functions of the secular State, which is, or should be, a two-way street. Leaving aside theocratic states or states with official religions, religious organizations are independent, have immunities, including fiscal ones, and do not suffer interference from the state. At the same time, they must not interfere in that same State. Of course, in times of “religious benches” this distance and tax immunity can be discussed, but these are other conversations.
As this is a case in Latin America, there is a specific context for this repression by the Ortega government. As mentioned, religious freedom must be preserved and this violation is often condemned. Another aspect, however, is the political weight of the Catholic Church in Latin America, including Nicaragua. The majority of the country’s population is Catholic, followed by Christians of other denominations. In addition to being the religion of the majority, the Catholic Church, as an institution, has capillarity and political presence, both historically and in recent examples.
In the present year of 2022 we had two Latin American crises that ended with the participation of the Catholic Church. In early July in Ecuador, after weeks of protests over mining activities and fuel prices, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities and the Guillermo Lasso government announced an agreement. The Catholic Church was the main mediator of the agreement and the text was signed at the episcopal seat of the capital, Quito, with the presence of Archbishop Alfredo José Espinoza Mateus.
At the end of the same month, it was the turn of the Panamanian government Laurentino Cortizo reach an agreement with protesters and popular leaders. Agreement again mediated by the Catholic Church. In an even more significant and also recent example, the peace agreement between the government of Colombia and the FARC, signed in 2016, also had the participation of the Catholic Church, especially in the articulation that made possible the talks based in Havana. The following year, Pope Francis visited the neighboring country.
History and threat
Due to the historical process of formation of Latin American societies, the Church Católica had, and still has, a great institutional weight and image of legitimacy before the population. In addition, it should be remembered that the Catholic Church is not homogeneous, with leaders such as bishops closer to government sectors, while parish priests are close to local and social leaders. This gives capillarity to the Church itself. A symbol of this during the Cold War was the fact that many priests embraced Liberation Theology, a theological approach that incorporates Marxist concepts.
None of this is foreign to Nicaragua. We can even say that it is umbilically linked to the country, since, in the Spanish empire, present-day Nicaragua was part of the Viceroyalty of New Spain, which had in the priests Miguel Hidalgo and José Maria Morelos some of its independence leaders. More recently, the church played a role in stabilizing the country in the 1990s 1990 and, in the 21st century, Ortega himself reneged on his public defense of the right to abortion in pregnancy to get closer to the church. .
Finally, the church sought a mediating role during the 2018 protests against Ortega. As a result, he became the target of supporters of Ortega and, later, of his own government. The accusation made by the government and its allies is that the church is dominated by conservative sectors, heirs of supporters of the dictator Somoza, especially the bishops. Classified as terrorists, they would have “abandoned” a role of mediating neutrality.
In addition to repressing and violating religious freedom, Ortega’s actions are politically calculated to reach perhaps the main political actor with popular legitimacy. that remains in the country. In other words, the Catholic Church is a threat to its power, for being a “competitor” in the hearts and minds of the population. For some, the mediating role that the institution plays in several countries in the region, including this year, is a solution. For Ortega, it is a risk.