This weekend, paramilitaries in Nicaragua attacked a car carrying the Bishop of Esteli, and in a separate incident pro-government forces besieged students in a parish church, killing two.
Protests against president Daniel Ortega which began April 18 have resulted in more than 300 deaths, according to local human rights groups. The country's bishops have mediated on-again, off-again peace talks between the government and opposition groups.
Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata Guevara of Esteli was attacked in his car at a police checkpoint in Nindiri, about 15 miles southeast of Managua, July 15. He was returning from saying Mass. The paramilitaries damaged the car's tires and windows, and fired on the vehicle.
Together with his driver, Bishop Mata took shelter in a house which was surrounded by Ortega's supporters, who verbally harassed him for 90 minutes.
He was able to leave the house through the intervention of the Archdiocese of Managua, which intervened with the government to send general commissioner Ramon Avellan to guarantee the bishop's physical safety. Bishop Mata returned to Esteli by cover of dark.
Bishop Mata is among the mediators and witnesses in the national dialogue between the government and the opposition.
Also on Sunday, Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano of Managua lamented that “police and paramilitaries” had entered a rectory and carried off “various belongings of the parish and of Fr. Jairo Velasquez”, who was unharmed. In his statement, the cardinal reiterated a call for the government and police to desist from “the attacks against the population” and to respect “the churches and rectories and personal articles of priests, which are used in humanitarian work.”
In Managua, around 150 student protesters who took refuge in Divine Mercy parish July 13 were able to leave the following day, after an intervention by the country's bishops.
The parish is near the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua, where the students had been protesting during a national strike. They were attacked by the paramilitaries, and sought shelter in the church building, where they were besieged. Two student protesters died in the church from fire by the paramilitaries.
The students were transferred July 14 to Managua's Immaculate Conception Cathedral, where they received medical care.
Fr. Raul Zamora, pastor of Divine Mercy parish, and his vicar, Fr. Erick Alvarado, announced July 16 their appreciation for those who have helped to clean up the church, and said that the church will be closed through July 19. On July 20, a penitential Mass will be said “where we will implore the Mercy of God and the gift of conversion for our Nicaragua.” Normal Mass times and perpetual adoration will resume July 21.
The Nicaraguan bishops have announced a day of prayer and fasting July 20 in reparation for desecrations carried out in recent months.
In a July 14 statement, the bishops' conference said that since it began mediation between the government and the opposition in April, “we have witnessed the government's lack of political will to dialogue sincerely and to seek real processes that would lead us to a true democracy.”
They said Ortega's government has refused “to address the central themes of the agenda of democratization” and to dismantle the paramilitaries.
They denounced the repression by police and paramilitaries, whose attacks “are juridically and morally condemnable” and which have the objective “of sowing terror in the people who have manifested themselves peacefully.”
Barricades and roadblocks are now found throughout Nicaragua, and clashes frequently turn lethal. Bishops and priests across the country have worked to separate protesters and security forces, and have been threatened and shot.
Nicaragua's crisis began after Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests only intensified after more than 40 protestors were killed by security forces initially.
Anti-government protesters have been attacked by “combined forces” made up of regular police, riot police, paramilitaries, and pro-government vigilantes.
The Nicaraguan government has suggested that protestors are killing their own supporters so as to destabilize Ortega's administration.
The Church in Nicaragua was quick to acknowledge the protestors' complaints.
The pension reforms which triggered the unrest were modest, but protests quickly turned to Ortega's authoritarian bent.
Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.
The Church has suggested that elections, which are not scheduled until 2021, be held in 2019, but Ortega has ruled this out.
Ortega was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought US-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.