‘There is much sorrow among the faithful, but they do not let their guard down’: What it’s like to profess the Catholic faith under the Ortega regime

As fear spreads, the Nicaraguan Church has become a bastion of resistance to the unprecedented onslaught of the Sandinista government

A young man holds a Nicaraguan flag on the rooftop of a cathedral during a protest.
A young man holds a Nicaraguan flag on the rooftop of a cathedral during a protest.Alfredo Zuniga (AP)
Wilfredo Miranda

Father Alfonso can easily spot the plainclothes police who attend his masses to report on what he preaches to his flock, especially to those critical of the Sandinista regime ruled by Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo. Not only do the spies in his church blatantly take cell-phone photos and videos, they are also well-known to the tight-knit community who view their audacity as shameful.

“They come into the sanctuary in civilian clothes hoping to see or hear something sinister, but they always leave with their tails between their legs, as the saying goes. Why? Because we always advocate prudence — we are not going to be baited into reacting. They try to provoke us to see if they can get a reaction to use against us,” said the priest. His name isn’t Alfonso — he asked EL PAÍS to use a pseudonym because his words could land him in prison or sent into exile, like other bishops, parish priests, seminarians and nuns in Nicaragua, a country where religious persecution is such that a profession of faith is akin to confessing a crime.

During Holy Week, the most important week in the Christian calendar, the Ortega-Murillo regime banned over 3,000 religious processions in Nicaragua. Despite the threat of jail, many still attended church services. The unwavering faith of those who acted in defiance inspired hope for a brighter future. In Nicaragua, this past month brought echoes of that same defiance as the Sandinista government intensified its campaign against the Catholic Church, an influential social and moral institution in Central America. Father Alfonso says that despite ongoing arrests of priests, a government order to freeze the bank accounts of five of the nine Catholic dioceses, and a “money laundering investigation” against the Catholic Church, the faithful still continue to attend mass.

“The parishioners are overwhelmed with sadness and even fear,” said Father Alfonso, a priest for 20 years. “They ask me, ‘How much can we bear, Father?’ But I don’t doubt our community will remain vigilant. I have seen more people than usual at mass for the last few weeks. The three Sunday masses are always full, and I preside over a very large church,” he said. Father Alfonso leads a church on the country’s Pacific coast, and is one of the few clergy who agreed to speak to EL PAÍS despite our promises of complete anonymity. The priests are terrified of landing in jail and for good reason — the bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, and six other priests are currently in prison.

Álvarez is serving a 26-year prison sentence for denouncing the government’s human rights violations, and a recent report on church persecution in Nicaragua revealed that the Ortega-Murillo regime has forced 41 clergy into exile since 2018. The exiles include papal nuncio Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, a bishop, 33 priests, three deacons, and three seminarians. The report by exiled academic Martha Patricia Molina also revealed that 36 nuns have been expelled or had their visa renewals rejected.

Ortega and Murillo’s complete break with the Catholic Church came after Pope Francis called Daniel Ortega “unstable” and likened the Sandinista government to Nazi Germany, a tone that went far beyond the Vatican’s usual diplomatic language. Two days later, Managua “suspended” diplomatic relations with the Holy See. The friendship between the two states that had lasted for over a century came to an abrupt halt. Ortega curried favor with the Church by criminalizing therapeutic abortion during his return to power in 2006, a move that earned him the Church’s political support for years. But more recently, the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua (CEN) harshly criticized the country’s repeated electoral fraud and authoritarian behavior. Numerous bishops and priests have publicly condemned police brutality since 2018 that has caused 350 deaths.

Ortega and Murillo have accused the bishops of promoting an “attempted coup d’état,” and their escalating repression is aimed at curtailing freedom of worship in Nicaragua. The government has disrupted the Catholic Church by seizing properties and freezing bank accounts that fund schools and seminaries.

A week after the Catholic Church was accused of money laundering because of bags with hundreds of thousands of dollars allegedly found on Church premises, Father Alfonso said, “It’s ridiculous. We live on the offerings of the faithful. We use the money to pay for basic services just like every other household — electricity, water, food, and cleaning services. We don’t earn a salary; we live honestly from church offerings.”

EL PAÍS has learned that many Catholic activities in other Nicaraguan dioceses have been heavily affected by the frozen bank accounts. There is no money to pay teachers and basic services. Father Alfonso said, “We had some emergency funds in bank accounts that are now frozen. My church is quite old and needs repair, like the leaky downspout that was damaged by recent rains.”

Some parishioners we interviewed in north-central Nicaragua told us that seemingly insignificant incidents are now being persecuted, like some T-shirts with inspirational biblical messages ordered for a recent event. The lettering was in light blue over a white background, the colors of the Nicaraguan flag. Since the flag has been adopted by dissidents as a symbol of protest, the Sandinista regime has made wearing or displaying these colors a criminal offense. “They’ll throw you in jail for less than that,’’ said a member of the Blessed Virgin of Cuapa Church.

“We won’t stop preaching the gospel”

Despite the prevailing fear among the clergy and faithful, Father Alfonso is amazed by their steadfast attendance at mass and other pastoral activities. “Their unwavering commitment motivates me to keep preaching the gospel,” he said. “Even if one day the government says they’re going to close the churches so we can no longer celebrate mass, we will always listen to the people. They need to feel that we are with them, that someone is with them. Some are more fearful than others because of all the threats and persecution, but we keep telling them to be joyful and keep the faith, because the day we lose hope, all is lost.”

Many Catholics are afraid that their churches will be confiscated, leaving them with no place to worship. EL PAÍS interviewed some who expressed displeasure over the failure of Catholic Church leadership in Nicaragua — Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and other CEN bishops — to speak out against religious persecution. Father Alfonso disagrees with Cardinal Brenes, but explains that just because some clergy remain silent, “we have not forgotten about Monsignor Rolando Álvarez or the suffering of the people.”

“We simply must know how to avoid the charging bull. We pray in private and act cautiously amid our daily suffering,” said the parish priest. “Everyone in Nicaragua lives this reality, but let me remind you that the Church has been persecuted since day one. Our history is full of martyrs, persecution, blood and tears, but no human power can ever extinguish the Church. I say this with utmost faith. Despite all its faults, the Church will stand steadfast. And so will Nicaragua.”

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