Nicaraguan police chase down Holy Week procession

The regime of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo has also expelled a priest from Panama, and has cancelled several other Catholic Church events

Policemen chase a procession in the streets of Nindirí, on April 4, 2023.Video: RR SS
Wilfredo Miranda Aburto

Members of a Holy Week procession in Nicaragua were chased by police in the streets of Nindirí, a small city around 16 miles (26 kilometers) from the capital, Managua. Footage of the scene, which took place on Holy Monday, shows the group running frantically as they are pursued. Some are carrying crosses, and nearly all of them are dressed in long tunics. In Nicaragua, the regime — led President Daniel Ortega, and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo — has banned Catholics from holding processions and carrying out other Holy Week traditions in public areas ahead of Easter Sunday.

One of the officers managed to intercept a young man dressed as Simon of Cyrene, who, according to scripture, was compelled by the Romans to carry the cross of Jesus as the latter was taken to his crucifixion. When the officer caught up with the young Catholic near Santa Ana Church, he warned him that religious activities were banned. “I’m just telling you, nothing more,” the officer is heard telling the man in the viral video.

This Holy Week tradition is one of the most striking religious events to be held in Masaya, the department where Nindirí is located. As part of the tradition, men, women, youths and children dress up in tunics and cloaks and carry crosses on their shoulders like Simon of Cyrene.

In other Nicaraguan cities, police have also stepped up efforts to prevent religious activity in the streets. Officers prohibited re-enactments of the Stations of the Cross during Lent for “security reasons,” and reinforced the order for Palm Saturday. Holy Week processions can take only place within churches, or close to them in adjacent streets.

Researcher Martha Patricia Molina, who is studying the attacks on the Catholic Church in the context of religious persecution, estimates that so far more than 30 processions have been canceled this year. However, she says that this is “a conservative number,” since there are 118 parishes under the Archdiocese of Managua.

Carlos Enrique Herrera, the president of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua (CEN), says that police have asked for processions to be only carried out near churches, just as they did during Lent. “In other words, we can use the streets that are near the temple, it is the only thing they have told us... it must be for security reasons,” he said.

Holy Week processions are very important to Catholics. In addition to being very busy events, they are popular traditions. As a result of Ortega’s order, the Archdiocese of Managua had to hold the traditional Triumph Procession with the image of Jesus Christ next to the Metropolitan Cathedral. And authorities canceled the so-called “Aquatic Stations of the Cross,” a re-enactment that runs through part of the Great Lake of Cocibolca — a tradition that has been celebrated for more than 40 years. In its wake, the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (Intur) said it will carry out its own Via Crucis in the lake, without the blessing of a religious authority of the Diocese of that department.

In the department of León, which is governed by an Ortega ally, a procession organized by Bishop Socrates Sándigo to celebrate Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem was also cancelled. And in the community of Popoyuapa, in the department of Rivas, a sculpture representing the Christ known as Jesús del Rescate also remained inside the church. Unlike previous years, the traditional pilgrimage to the church in Popoyuapa did not take place on Good Friday. Authorities said it was cancelled for “reasons beyond their control.”

Priest expelled

In addition to cracking down on Holy Week events, authorities also expelled Panamanian priest Donaciano Alarcón on Monday. Alarcón was in charge of Maria Auxiliadora Church, in San José de Cusmapa, in the department of Madriz.

Religious sources told EL PAÍS that the priest was arrested Monday afternoon, after taking part in a Mass held by the Diocese of Estelí. According to these sources, Alarcón was taken out of Nicaragua via El Espino, a border outpost where authorities left him barefoot on Honduran territory.

Catholic Panorama, the magazine of the Archdiocese of Panama, confirmed on social media that the priest had been deported from Nicaragua, arguing that the action was taken because Alarcón had organized a Holy Week procession in front of his parish. “The priest is in a neighboring city, San Marcos de Colón... We continue to pray for the sister church of Nicaragua, which, despite everything, continues with an unwavering faith,” said Catholic Panorama.

Another Catholic source did not rule out that Alarcón may have been deported due to the fact that he mentioned, on more than one occasion, Roman Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, an outspoken critic of Nicaragua’s government, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison. In a bid to lessen the backlash over its crackdown, the Nicaraguan government has promoted other religious activities that have not been approved by the Catholic Church, which has said they are “usurping” the traditional events.

“Whoever says that there is religious freedom here is a liar, because not letting you go out on the street is restricting your freedom,” a devout Catholic told the news outlet Divergentes. “The idea is not to let your guard down, for people do not confront [the authorities], but also not stop going to church.”

Ortega and Murillo unilaterally suspended diplomatic relations with the Holy See in mid-March, after Pope Francis described the Nicaraguan regime as a dictatorship. “It is something from outside of what we are living, as if it were a communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitlerian one in 1935,” he said in a March 10 interview with Argentine media outlet Infobae.

In 2022, the Nicaraguan government expelled Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the papal Nuncio (akin to an ambassador) to Nicaragua, and this year, it shut down Catholic aid organization Caritas and closed media groups owned by the Catholic Church. It has also exiled and imprisoned 21 priests, who have been declared “traitors to the homeland.

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