Catholic Church members across Nicaragua have begun protesting against what they say is a Sandinista government conspiracy to muzzle the clergy and keep them from asking their flock to vote for the opposition in next month's general elections.
The charges have been made over the recent arrest of a young man, Leonel Alberto Conde Torres, who allegedly made threatening phone calls to several priests, according to police.
However, church-goers say it is part of a larger "set-up" organized by Sandinista supporters to keep the clergy from reading a pastoral letter drafted by Nicaragua's Episcopal Conference concerning the current political climate and the choice of presidential candidates on the November 6 ballot.
"Long live the Catholic Church!" and "No more lies!" were just some of the slogans chanted during Sunday's services at the Managua Cathedral in support of the church's dean, Bismark Conde. The priest's younger brother is said by police to have confessed to issuing threats against Edwin Román Calderón, a priest at the Santa Ana parish in Nindirí.
According to Bishop Miguel Mantica, pastoral vicar of the Archdiocese of Managua, no member of the Episcopal Conference has made any formal complaints to the national police force, saying the sudden investigation was "surprising and confusing."
Conde Torres was released on Monday after no one came forward to file charges.
For his part, Román Calderón believes the entire episode is "a smokescreen to divert attention" because the priests were scheduled on Sunday to read from the pastoral letter, which, among other things, urges Catholics to "vote without fear" and choose a candidate who respects the Constitution, and has no history of corruption.
Juan Ramón Grádiz, National Police commissioner, said during a news conference on Monday that investigators used records from Movistar to trace the phone calls to Conde's cellphone. "It was our obligation to order the investigation," he said, explaining that the case was dropped because no one filed charges.
With the elections just less than a month away, political tensions have heightened over President Daniel Ortega's bid to run for a third term by modifying a law in the Constitution last year without holding a referendum, opening debate over whether it is legally valid. The opposition and dissident members of his own Sandinista Front ruling party have accused Ortega of widespread corruption and have compared him to the late dictator Anastasio Somoza, who had amassed a family fortune before he was ousted from power in a 1979 revolution.
Tensions between the government and the Church have also heightened over the unsolved murder on August 20 of a priest, Marlon Pupiro García. Hundreds of people have held demonstrations in the small town La Concepción, where Pupiro was from, and Masaya, where he served, demanding that the police investigate.
"There has never been a case like this in Nicaragua, but still we don't understand how a pitiless criminal hand could so destroy a priest," said Blas Cordo, another priest from Masaya, about his murdered colleague.
International observers are expected to converge in Nicaragua for the elections, in which voters will also elect members to the national assembly.
For his part, President Ortega called on the bishops to "sow peace and love" and not hate among the political forces. Speaking on Monday, Ortega said he believed "it is a small group" that wants to deliver a message of "hate and confrontation."