Bishops, journalists attacked at church in Nicaragua

IMAGE: CNS photo/Oswaldo Rivas, Reuters

By David Agren

COPAN, Honduras (CNS) — Nicaraguan
bishops and clergy were attacked by armed groups aligned with the government July
9 as violence in the Central American country escalated and affected the
Catholic Church, which has provided humanitarian assistance in its parishes and
has tried to diffuse a worsening political crisis through dialogue.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes Solorzano
of Managua and his auxiliary, Bishop Silvio Jose Baez, and Archbishop Waldemar
Stanislaw Sommertag, the apostolic nuncio, were among clergy from Managua pummeled
as they attempted to protect St. Sebastian Basilica in the city of
Diriamba from an incursion by a pro-government mob. Bishop Baez and at least
one other priest were injured. Journalists also were attacked and had cameras
and other equipment stolen.

The bishops and clergy also
tried to free anti-government protesters inside the church as masked
individuals and mobs outside chanted “murderers” at the prelates.
Pro-government media, meanwhile, accused the church of allowing weapons to be
stored inside its properties.

“I was injured, punched in
the stomach, they took my episcopal symbols away from me, and verbally attacked
me,” Bishop Baez tweeted, along with a picture of a gash on his arm and
blood-stained habit. “I’m OK, thank God. The basilica is free and so are
those who were inside.”

have felt brutal force against our priests. We had gone to (the) parish to
console our priests, to accompany them in this suffering and were attacked,”
he said.

The attack on the bishops came
as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent police and paramilitaries to counter protesters calling for his ouster.

The protests — originally
triggered over reforms to the social security system in April — have claimed
at least 300 lives. Seventeen people were killed July 7 and 8 during repressions
by police and paramilitaries in the cities of Jinotepe, Diriamba and Matagalpa,
according to Amnesty International.

The church delegation traveled
to Diriamba to “show solidarity” with priests in the area after a
massacre, Father Victor Rivas, executive secretary of the Nicaraguan bishops’
conference, told Catholic News Service.

Churches in Nicaragua are often
used to provide medical attention, according to Father Rivas, as people are
often afraid to take the injured to hospitals, where they risked being “taken

“They’ve viewed churches as
places where people are plotting against the government,” Father Rivas

“For the government, for
the paramilitaries, for the Sandinista groups, the church is not viewed well,”
he added. “The only thing that (the church) wants is for the country to
stabilize with a true, authentic peace.”

The bishops’ conference had
convened a national dialogue in an attempt to find a solution, but talks have
broken down. Ortega discarded a proposal for holding early elections in 2019,
calling proponents of such plans, “Coup mongerers.”

On July 8, Bishop Baez said the
bishops would “seriously assess” their continuation as mediators in a
national dialogue.

“We cannot continue sitting
with representatives of a government that lies, doesn’t accept responsibility
and continues massacring the civil population,” Bishop Baez said during Mass,
according to the newspaper La Prensa.

“The height of the
shamelessness is presenting themselves as innocent and even as victims. When
murder is accompanied by cynicism, by lying, it’s doubly grave in the eyes of

On July 9, Francisco Palmieri, U.S.
principal deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs,
reacted with a tweet: “Outraged by news from #Nicaragua. New violence by
gov’t-controlled thugs vs. cardinal, nuncio, bishops & independent media in
Diriamba is unacceptable. The governments violence & intimidation campaign
undermines dialogue & must stop. Critical to find peaceful way forward.”

Pope Francis met June 30 with Cardinal
Brenes and Bishop Rolando Jose Alvarez Lagos of Matagalpa to discuss the

In an interview with Spanish
news agency EFE, Cardinal Brenes said the pope was “worried” about
the crisis and encouraged the bishops “to continue forward in accompanying
the suffering people and continue the work of dialogue.”

“He expressed his closeness
with us and asked to always be kept informed. He also said that we can always
count on his closeness and especially his prayers,” Cardinal Brenes told
EFE June 30.

In his Angelus address the
following day, the pope called on the faithful to pray for Nicaragua and
expressed his support for the country’s bishops and “so many people of
goodwill in their role of mediation and witness for the process of national
dialogue on the path of democracy.”

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Contributing to this story was
Junno Arocho Esteves at the Vatican.

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