Pro-Ortega mayors are persecuting priests in the majority of the 27 municipalities in the northern provinces of Estelí, Madriz and Nueva Segovia, by controlling religious activities in Catholic churches, conditioning aid for parish repairs, or even preventing parishoners from celebrating certain public festivities.
The priests feel compelled to not question the Sandinista municipal authorities so as to avoid doing anything that could lead to physical aggressions, smear campaigns, persecution and even judicial processes, such as those that have targeted several religious leaders currently being held in jail without due process, based on orders by the Ortega-Murillo presidential couple.
Several parish priests of local Catholic churches in municipalities in Nueva Segovia agreed to speak on condition of anonymity in order to avoid reprisals. They said that masses are constantly being monitored by municipal officials or by known militants of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
"They come here and everyone knows them. They sit in the pews in the back rows, and there they record with their cell phones. Before they didn't attend mass and now they attend all the time. I want to believe in the possibility that they have converted to Catholicism and that they are in search of salvation and God," said one of the priests who was interviewed.
Religious activities are being hijacked
The same priest described how Purísima activities dedicated to the Virgin Mary were taken over by Sandinista municipal authorities.
"They came and set up altars almost at the door of the church and next to the park, and started handing out Purísima sweets, sugar cane, and baskets full of candy, and singing songs, without ever talking with us or coordinating with the church," said the priest, who asked not to specify the place he was referring to, but pointed out that the same thing is also happening in Catholic churches in other municipalities of Nueva Segovia.
Days before the celebration of the Purisima, the Sandinista authorities at the mayor's office in Somoto, the capital of Madriz province, installed illuminated altars of the Virgin Mary in front of the central park and next to the Santiago Apostle church. Mayor Dania Sugey Martínez Mondragón directed the installation of the altars without including the priests in charge of the local church.
"It would seem they [the municipal authorities] are the leaders of the Catholic Church, directing how the processions, masses, ecclesiastical activities, baptisms, and marriages should be organized. You see them at mass, in the processions carrying the saints, and they even organize political activities here in front of the church", said "Azucena", who identified herself as a 53-year-old faithful Catholic resident of Somoto.
Several Catholic parishioners who are part of church committees that organize religious activities, fundraising, assistance to low-income families, and support for repairing churches, have lamented that the priests are no longer in charge of the churches.
"These people [from the mayor's offices] have taken authority away from the priests. Every time we need to carry out some church activity, we have to contact them to see if they will allow us to do it", said "Martha", another resident of Somoto.
Martha is part of a women's Bible study group that organizes sessions in different neighborhoods in Somoto. She is also a member of the committee that raises funds for the church and reports that "the police are now prohibiting our neighborhood and house meetings."
In Somoto, many Catholic parishioners know that their priests keep quiet to avoid confronting the authorities of the Ortega-Murillo regime. "It is not that they are afraid of them, because God is with the priests, but you know how the government is, they even send you to jail. Now they don't even respect the kind of Christianity that the great majority of the Nicaraguan people profess. They're even inventing surveys that say that the majority converted to evangelical Christianity", said "Celina", who fears reprisals because two of her children are government workers.
Masses in Estelí are being monitored
In several municipalities in the province of Estelí, churches are under constant watch by regime envoys who attend the masses. "They are Ortega loyalists who are well known in town for being violent Sandinistas. They come and sit in the back pews when before they didn't even come to mass", recounted a parishioner who said she was one of the women in charge of cleaning and set-up of the masses celebrated in the El Calvario church, located southwest of the city of Estelí.
A priest from another town in Estelí province commented that since 2018 they have not received food donations from organizations that used to work with them to help poor people in communities affected by the drought.
"Before, when Monsignor Juan Abelardo Mata was here, we would hand out food packages, clothes and medicines. That's no longer possible because the Government doesn't allow it. Even if we can get the things to give out, the government tells you that it's not the responsibility of the Church but of the State", said the priest, who asked not to be identified.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Our Staff