Nicaragua: ‘No way out of the current crisis without the Church’
FROM SPRING TO SUMMER 2019, there were a series of violent clashes in Nicaragua, pitting government troops against protesters. Hundreds were killed, mostly young demonstrators. The government says 150 died, but unofficial estimates put the number at more than 500. The country’s Catholic Church, strongly advocating dialogue, has played a crucial role in curbing further violence. Marco Mencaglia, desk officer for Nicaragua at Aid to the Church in Need, gives his impressions from a recent visit to the country.
What is the current situation in Nicaragua?
The political climate in the country remains extremely tense. At this time, the fate of many young people has yet to be decided. Hundreds of them are still in prison for political reasons relating to the suppression of the protests. Less blatant forms of discrimination also have a negative impact on life in the country.
What role did the Catholic Church play during this time?
The Catholic Church is playing a decisive role in finding a peaceful solution for the conflict because it is an institution that is deeply rooted in society. After the first protests, the government asked the Church to play a mediating role. However, the dialogue was aborted by the government after eight meetings. A fierce campaign was initiated by government circles to discredit the Catholic Church. Strong allegations were made against Church leaders and Catholics were called “putschists” and “terrorists.” At the same time, measures were taken to keep tabs on everything the priests said and did. Thus, for example, the content of Sunday sermons is monitored closely.
In addition, there are reports of violent measures being taken to harass persons who suspected of having provided some form of material support for the protests, even if they were not directly involved in the clashes. Over the course of my visit, one sentence came up again and again: “Young and Catholic is a dangerous thing to be in Nicaragua today.”
What impressed you most during your trip?
The courage of the Church as it worked to prevent even more violence during the months of conflict. The protest organizers closed off the main roads in many regions of the country, bringing life to a standstill in the country for weeks. There are many photos showing priests in particularly tense situations, standing with arms raised between armed government forces who were about to take down blockades by force, and protesters who had resolved to show resistance. By risking their own lives, these priests, most of them young men, saved the lives of many young people on both sides of the conflict. Many churches took in hundreds of wounded, converting church buildings into makeshift field hospitals.
In spite of the campaign to discredit the Church, recent, independent surveys have shown that the Church as an institution continues to enjoy a very high level of credibility. The number of vocations to the priesthood continues to rise practically everywhere in the country. Each year, new parishes are created. The number of applications received from people interested in taking part in educational courses offered by the Church is also growing.
Is there a way out of the crisis?
The Nicaraguan Church has said time and again that the only way out of the crisis is through dialogue and by supporting a process that ensures that the fundamental rules of democracy—foremost, free and fair elections—are respected. That will channel the energy of young people for the good of the country. It is important to avoid starting new conflicts with the help of all sectors of society. I would even go so far as to say that there is no peaceful way out of the current situation without the involvement of the Church. At a spiritual and social level, the Church continues to play a decisive and unique role in Nicaragua as it moves along the difficult path to healing the deep wounds left by last year’s deadly clashes.
What does the Nicaraguan Church need most?
It is necessary to pray for the people who have distanced themselves from the Church for political reasons—that they may return to the community of the Church. These are difficult processes that quietly continue to move forward in spite of the many problems. During these precarious times, the Nicaraguan Church needs to feel the solidarity of the world Church in prayer and its ongoing attention.
Aid to the Church in Need supports the Church in Nicaragua through supporting seminarians, funding the establishment of new parishes, and with programs providing for the formation of young people.