Parishioners holding vigil at a church to pray for detained foes of President Daniel Ortega came under attack from supporters of the government on Thursday.
The attackers used clubs, machetes, and metal bars in a Nov. 21 attack at a church in Masaya, about 20 miles southeast of Nicaragua’s capital of Managua.
“They came with pipes and machetes, they beat the altar boys and a woman and they had us surrounded in here,” said Father Harving Madina, parish priest of Masaya’s San Juan Bautista Church, the Associated Press reports.
Madina and parishioners at San Juan Bautista had planned to march a few blocks to a nearby church, San Miguel, which is surrounded by pro-government groups. The march was intended to show support for its priest and parishioners on hunger strike seeking the release of relatives they say are political prisoners.
Their relatives were detained during protests against Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega.
A hostile group surrounded San Juan Bautista church as Mass was being celebrated, Father Madina said. The group tried to break through the doors as priests and parishioners used pews to barricade the entrance.
One 50-year-old parishioner who tried to stop the assailants was beaten by several people who then handed him over to onlooking police, who did not intervene during the disturbance.
Anti-government protests in Nicaragua began in April 2018. The crackdown from security forces and pro-government militias resulted in more than 320 deaths last year, with 2,000 injured and tens of thousands fleeing the country as refugees.
Modest pension reforms triggered the unrest but protests quickly turned to objections to what critics said was Ortega’s authoritarian bent.
Ortega, who previously led the country for over a decade after the Sandinistas’ 1979 ouster of the Somoza dictatorship, has been president of Nicaragua since 2007, and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.
The Catholic Church had suggested that the elections scheduled for 2021 be held this year, but Ortega has ruled this out.
Ortega’s backers have said that a demand for the president to leave office early and to hold early elections are tantamount to a coup attempt. Some have labeled the protesters as terrorists, the Associated Press reports.
Ortega’s government has accused many bishops and priests of supporting the opposition.
Rosario Murillo, Nicaragua’s vice president and Ortega’s wife, criticized “those who claim to speak in the name of the faith,” calling them “repugnant wolves who spread hatred.”
The San Miguel protest vigil began Nov. 14. Authorities cut off electricity and water to the church. The National Police surrounded the building, threatening to enter by force to end the demonstration.
Thirteen people who tried to bring water to the demonstrators Nov. 14 were arrested. They were charged Nov. 18 with weapons transport. Police say the 13 people were carrying guns and bombs, and charged that they intended to “continue carrying out terrorist acts ... against police buildings, city halls and monuments.”
A group of priests tried to enter San Miguel church Nov. 15, but police held them back. The health of at least three protesters there is reported to be in decline.
Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano of Managua has condemned the National Police's “siege and intimidation” of the Masaya hunger strikers and their pastor, Fr. Edwin Román.
The cardinal called on the national police to respect “the free movement to demonstrate” and “the exercise of religious freedom.”
On Nov. 18 a different pro-government group invaded Managua’s Immaculate Conception Cathedral to pursue seven mothers of detained anti-Ortega protesters who had entered the cathedral to pray.
The mothers removed themselves to another part of the cathedral.
According to the archdiocese, a violent group “related to the government” entered and took control of the cathedral. When a priest and a nun tried to rebuke them, members of the mob beat them. The two were not seriously injured but had to leave the church to protect themselves.
Msgr. Carlos Avilés, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Managua, said the group was backed by the police.
The mothers took shelter in the cathedral overnight, and were then evacuated Nov. 19 in a Red Cross ambulance, as part of a deal negotiated by Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua. The invading group later gave up control of the cathedral.
The Nicaraguan bishops' conference expressed “profound concern” Nov. 19 over the “indifference of the state for the rights of Nicaraguans who are expressing their sorrow and their needs.”
The bishops called on “those responsible for these sieges to change their stance.”
Nicaraguans have suffered too much pain,” they continued. “The besieged families suffer doubly: the lack of freedom for their incarcerated family members and, now, the state of siege that threatens their lives. We call on the government to hear their petitions which are at the same time their rights.”
The Managua archdiocese also asked Ortega to “take immediate action that all our Catholic churches are respected.”