By Inés San Martín
ROSARIO, Argentina (Crux) – Nicaragua’s bishops are urging prayers for peace after the regime’s latest salvo in its war against the Catholic Church.
The government of Daniel Ortega is cancelling the visas of foreign priests and closing Church formation centers.
“Father Luis Carrillo of Colombian origin, who currently pastors at the parish of San Judas Tadeo, belonging to the Diocese of Esteli, had his Nicaraguan residence permit withdrawn,” reads a statement published Sept. 7 on the diocesan Facebook page. He’s but one of 10 foreign priests in the northern city, the third largest in the country.
The statement says the priest leaves “with his head held high, through the main door of what was his parish, without any inconvenience, other than announcing the Gospel of truth, and denouncing injustices.”
The photo accompanying the post shows Fr. Carillo wearing a facemask, which can be seen as a show of defiance in Nicaragua, where the government has downplayed the threat posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
“He leaves smiling and with his eyes always on God and on our Holy Mother,” the Facebook statement said.
Sources within the bishops’ conference have confirmed to Crux that Fr. Carrillo’s situation is not unique: Several other priests, some of whom have been working in Nicaragua for decades, face deportation. Others receive “regular” visits from allies of the government, who monitor the content of homilies for political content and report back to authorities.
Though the relationship between the Catholic hierarchy and the Ortega government has long been strained, it got worse after a civil uprising began in April 2018. The COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse, as the bishops took the lead by setting up isolation centers for people who tested positive for the novel coronavirus; however, the government shut them down, arguing that there was no pandemic, and that God would protect the country from the disease if there was.
The Central American country was among only a handful to never closes schools or temporarily shut down non-essential activities to try to stop the spread of the pandemic. Today, the death toll remains unknown, with a nationwide network of doctors and volunteers saying thousands have died, as opposed to the 141 officially counted by the government.
Last month, there was an arson attack against the cathedral of the capital Managua, but since then much of the government’s attention shifted to the Diocese of Esteli, led by Bishop Abelardo Mata, secretary of the bishops’ conference and a long-time critic of Ortega.
On Sept. 6, the parish of Christ the King was attacked, and the hermitage dedicated to St. Dominic desecrated. On Monday, the diocesan Facebook page confirmed that the government had closed the church-run Agriculture Technical Institute, which provided an education for dozens of young people.
The government’s decision to send priests – and bishops – into exile is not unprecedented in the country. In 1986, the Sandinista government led by Ortega – who ruled the country as a Communist dictatorship from 1979 -1990 before returning to power in 2007 – expelled Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega Mantilla of Juigalpa, at the time president of the bishops’ conference. A week earlier, the government had barred a church spokesman, Monsignor Bismarck Carballo, from reentering the country after a trip to Miami.
The 2018 protests against Ortega erupted after he announced social security reforms which would have decreased benefits and continued even after the government withdrew the proposal.
The Church drew the ire of the regime by opening the doors of church buildings to protestors after they were fired upon. Pope Francis later asked Bishop Silvio Baez, auxiliary of Managua, to leave the country: he had received dozens of death treats for his outspokenness against the regime.
Several bishops and priests have survived attacks by paramilitary groups, and parish churches have often been targeted.
The Catholic hierarchy has refused to back down.
The Facebook statement from the Diocese of Esteli noted “the Church has always seen the coffin of its aggressors passing by.”
On Sept. 6, Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa urged Nicaragua’s politicians and the rest of society to not to fall into confrontation and to respect the integrity of others.
“Politicians are needed – and they exist – who have a high ethical profile, who address problems without offending others, without ferocious attacks, with clear proposals, as we’ve insisted on many occasions, who have a vision of a the nation leaving aside the vices from the past, learning from mistakes and looking towards the future,” he said during his Sunday Mass.
“As the word of God says, it’s necessary to remember that you weren’t born to destroy but to build,” Alvarez said.
The bishops conference called for a week of prayer from Sept. 8-15, with daily intentions that include peace, justice, reconciliation, family, freedom and the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.