The 'Not So Cordial' Church-State Relations in Nicaragua

Article excerpt

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA * Facing allegations from top Sandinista Officials that they're trying to "destabilize" the Sandinista government, church leaders in Nicaragua have requested a meeting with President Daniel Ortega in an effort to salvage souring church-state relations.

The church's ties to the ruling Sandinista party are "not so cordial" these days, as Granada Bishop Bernand Hombach put it. After clergy called for a recount amid allegations the ruling Sandinista party rigged elections in November 2008, the Sandinista government responded with verbal attacks and by withholding funds for faith-based education.

"They're taking measures against the church so the church doesn't speak out publicly," Hombach said.

The German-born Hombach, 75, who came to Nicaragua at the height of the contra war in 1987, says relations with the Sandinista government aren't great but are still a whole lot better than they were during the '80s, when clergy were persecuted, jailed and expelled under the Sandinista government.

Ortega, who as president during the '80s accused church leaders of conspiring with contra rebels, made overtures to the Catholic church in seeking reelection in 2006. But the Sandinista leader's delicate alliance with the church quickly wore thin. An alarm sounded for church leaders this month when Attorney General Hernan Estrada, in an outburst of anger after he was attacked in the street, lashed out against clergy for allegedly "inciting violence" and "destabilizing" the Sandinista government.

Estrada's televised tirade was passionate but based on little evidence. The attorney general was waylaid by attackers during his morning jog April 5.

Estrada's harangue was the latest in a series of confrontations between Sandinista officials and church leaders, who have become increasingly vocal against the Ortega government since civil unrest broke out following allegations of electoral fraud in late 2008.

"We can't sit with arms crossed as the country is bleeding," said Fr. Rolando Alvarez, spokesman for the archbishop's curia in Managua. Alvarez has emerged as one of the Sandinista government's most outspoken critics. He has denounced electoral fraud and the government's use of Catholic symbols and its destitute supporters for political ends.

The National Sandinista Liberation Front's relationship with the Catholic church has swung like a pendulum as the party has evolved from its roots as a clandestine guerrilla movement opposed to the despotic Somoza dynasty.

The church at first opposed the Sandinista movement and its guerrilla tactics, but it eventually supported the Marxist rebels on the eve of the 1979 Sandinista revolution that toppled U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. Relations turned bitter after the Sandinistas took power and church leaders denounced the persecution of dissidents. The Sandinistas, outraged by the church's refusal to denounce CIA-sponsored contras, even tried starting up their own alternative revolutionary church, la Iglesia popular, which never gained much support.

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After falling from power and losing elections in 1996 and 2001, Ortega made overtures toward the church before launching his fourth presidential campaign in 2006. The former archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo, married Ortega and lifelong partner Rosario Murillo in a Catholic wedding, and Ortega took a position against abortion that led to a ban on therapeutic abortion days before the election.

Less than two years into his return to power, Ortega refused to invite international observers to mayoral elections in November, in which the Sandinistas claimed 105 of 146 mayorships. …