In their homilies this weekend, both Bishop Silvio Baez, auxiliary of Managua, and Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa had a similar message addressed to Nicaragua’s political class.
“May Jesus Christ, the good shepherd, lead Nicaragua towards green pastures and tranquil fountains, may he hear the call of the people of Nicaragua who aspires to the necessary and urgent electoral reforms, with wide consensus and that may guarantee a free, fair, transparent and legitimate election,” said Alvarez on Sunday.
“The crucial moment we’re living demands from each and every one of us a deep sense and conscience of social responsibility,” he said.
He also prayed for God to allow the people of Nicaragua to work with “serenity and equilibrium” so that a path of unity can be accomplished to leave behind the political and economic crisis the country has been going through since 2018.
Alvarez, the youngest of Nicaragua’s bishops, urged for responsibility and commitment, “so that no one feels excluded or indifferent to what will undoubtedly define the present and the future of Nicaragua, we say once again that the responsibility belongs to all of us. Courage, and let’s move forward!”
Baez, who was asked by Pope Francis to leave Nicaragua in 2019 after he received several death threats against himself and his family, said Mass in Miami, where he’s now based.
He called on politicians in his homeland to set aside their personal interests and serve the country “in the right way,” so that tomorrow they are not remembered as “thieves and looters.”
“An authentic leader forgets himself, does not try to step up the ladder nor accumulate money: They simply wish to serve in an disinterested way,” he said. “Christ the good shepherd reminds us that it’s not enough to lead, rule or control. As the today’s Gospel says, there are voracious wolves ready to devour and destroy.”
Baez also said that if the leadership is not close to the people if they don’t feel the people’s suffering and share their dreams.
“They are, as the Gospel says, thieves and looters, a hired man who has no concern for the sheep,” the bishop said.
Politicians, he said, are called to care and defend the life and dignity of people, and not just try and impress with speeches and big promises. Baez said they have to be friends with the poor “until they’re impregnated with their pains and hopes.”
The bishops’ homilies take on special significance after the reforms the government of President Daniel Ortega presented on April 12, which severely limits the opposition, aiming to prohibit those his government has labeled “traitors of the Fatherland” from being voted into any office.
A little over three years ago, on April 18, 2018, the Nicaraguan people took the streets to demand the reversal of a tax hike that would have severely harmed the country’s elderly population. The protests evolved into a call for the resignation of Ortega. In turn, together with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, he responded by sending in the security services.
The clashes between protesters and the police left hundreds of civilians dead. The local Catholic hierarchy called for peace, while allowing churches to become “field hospitals,” where doctors helped the wounded with the help of medical and nursing students.
Since then, there have been ongoing verbal clashes between the government and the bishops, with Ortega calling the prelates “coup mongers” and many of the bishops calling him a dictator, accusing him of corruption, and supporting the call for new elections.
There were several attempts at forging a dialogue, with the papal representative in the country, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, playing a key role in trying to tone down the rhetoric if nothing else.
He also worked for the release of thousands of members of the opposition in jail as political prisoners.
Last week, the papal charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) released its bi-annual report on religious freedom around the world and put Nicaragua in the list of countries where religious freedom and freedom of worship are seriously compromised due to the government’s repression.
“The greatest violations of religious freedom occurred in nations with questionable records of respect for human rights and democracy, including Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela,” says the ACN report. “These governments expressed hostility and aggression towards Christian Churches – both Catholic and non-Catholic – when religious leaders denounced corruption, and social and political policies understood to be detrimental to the common good.”
Concretely, the papal charity documented, “hostility by the state was evidenced through the use of force including: disrupting religious celebrations; intimidating the faithful with belligerent police deployments around churches and during processions; the conspicuous absence of police protection when mobs attacked and vandalized places of worship; threats to religious leaders and the faithful; cancelled visas for foreign national church personnel; and opaque registration processes for religious groups.”