“Crackdown on Religious Freedom in Nicaragua”
Hearing before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom
November 15, 2022
Testimony of Irela Guevara, OAA Program Director
It is an honor for me to participate in this panel. As an exiled Nicaraguan, I feel the moral obligation to tell as many people as possible what my country is going through, what Nicaraguans suffer on a civil and religious level, so thank you to the commission for giving me this opportunity. I left my country in a state of war in September 2018. Four years have passed since the crisis broke out and nothing seems to have improved – on the contrary, violations of human and religious rights have become institutionalized in Nicaragua. The Ortega and Murillo regime has created a state of fear based on terror.
Various repressive measures by the regime can be identified, backed by a “legal system” that is illegitimate and applied arbitrarily to anyone who questions the authoritarian regime of Ortega and Murillo. In this scenario, religious leaders and faith-based organizations that consistently denounce the regime for human rights violations become targets of politically motivated religious freedom violations.
Therefore, any religious leader known as or associated with the opposition is harassed or pressured to the point of violence. None of those affected have a legitimate institution, in which such illegal actions can be denounced, or the guarantee of their rights is demanded.
In a country like Nicaragua, there is no free access to information as we have here in the U.S. The last population census was taken in 2005. For this reason, it is very difficult to have a sense of how the Nicaraguan population is divided in terms of religion. But we can say that approximately 90 percent of the Nicaraguan population is considered Christian, including 46 percent Catholics and 44 percent evangelicals.
In 2018 the Catholic Church, representing a majority of the population, opened its temples to protect the lives of citizens who were initially protesting for social reforms. Due to the violent response of the government, the protests quickly became a massive social outburst of citizens demanding freedom.
Since then, the Catholic Church has become a voice for the demands of the Nicaraguan people, exposing illegality, abuses of power, and violations of the human, civil, and religious rights of Nicaraguans. As of today, the Catholic Church has been the target of at least 190 attacks, including the burning of the Managua Cathedral in 2020.
Around 60 individuals of the Catholic Church have left the country or have been expelled from Nicaragua. These individuals have been stripped of their passports, nationality, residence, and in some cases, they have been denied entry to Nicaragua or some have decided to go into exile as they fear for their lives.
Among the religious individuals who have left Nicaragua is the former apostolic nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, who was expelled by the Government of Nicaragua. There are currently 10 religious prisoners, all priests of the Catholic Church.
The list include:
- Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who is under house arrest.
- Manuel Salvador Garcia
- Leonardo Urbina Rodriguez
- Oscar Benavidez
- Jose Luis Diaz
- Sadiel Eugarrios
- Raul Vega Gonzalez
- Darvin Leiva
- Melkin Centeno
- Enrique Martinez Gamboa
The Ortega Murillo regime has canceled at least 8 Catholic radio stations and the episcopal conference television channel. The regime’s attack on the Catholic Church is systematic, ranging from verbal attacks in public speeches by the regime, accusing the bishops and priests of being terrorists and of attempting a coup against Ortega.
Every day Catholics must deal with permanent surveillance. Ortega’s police are permanently monitoring the parishes and recording on video the going and coming of ordinary citizens who simply attend church as a form of religious exercise and mainly look for a word of hope and peace.
The parishioners are afraid to attend the temples because their faces are recorded on video that are in the hands of murderous police officers. They fear that these images will be used against them, to accuse them of being involved in the alleged terrorist activities led by Catholic bishops and priests. Catholics are afraid to contribute financially to the churches, thinking that they may be accused of financing the coup that, according to Ortega-Murillo, the Catholic Church is coordinating.
For many of you this sounds illogical or even absurd, but believe me when I tell you, in my country the unimaginable occurs daily. The regime in these four years has clearly demonstrated that even the most minimal actions such as attending mass, supporting the social work of the church, can be considered an act of terrorism and an attack against the peace and stability of the country.
Nearly 2,700 civil society organizations have been closed in Nicaragua over the course of these four years. It is difficult to count how many of these are of religious origin, but without a doubt many organizations, both Catholic and Evangelical, have been cancelled. The government’s excuse for these cancellations is alleged non-compliance with regulations of the Ministry of the Interior (MinGob) and the General Directorate of Taxes (DGI).
The Superintendency of Banks in Nicaragua controls the income and expenses of the parishes, and any movement of money is subject to investigation. If I as a Christian want to give a contribution to my church, I must know that this act can result in an investigation for alleged terrorism.
Undoubtedly, the attack and violations of religious freedom have been mainly against the Catholic Church, however, there is documentation showing that evangelical churches have also been victimized. These churches operate in the country as NGOs. The moment a pastor or an evangelical leader express themselves in public outside of religious matters, these churches are cancelled. The fear of losing their legal status has kept them silent in the face of the crisis.
So, we see that the Government’s tactics of repression have shifted from accusing the Catholic leaders of terrorists, harassment, incarceration, fire, and bombs to fiscal control, and permanent surveillance. At the beginning of this crisis the Government set the precedent that being against the regime results in death, prison, and exile.
For this reason, it is imperative to continue to closely monitor and document violations of religion freedom as USCIRF is doing with support of organizations like OAA, not only in Nicaragua but also in Cuba. OAA is monitoring violations of freedom of religion and supporting the faith-based community in their role as active actors of civil society in the efforts of finding a way out to the crisis.
To summarize and in answer to the two questions presented to me:
- In what ways are the tactics of the Ortega regime and its supporters changing vis-à-vis repression of the Catholic Church?
The biggest change is that the government has developed “legal mechanisms” to act against the church under the false statement that the church is terrorist.
- Do religious leaders and laypeople of other faiths experience similar repression?
Any group in Nicaragua can experience repression and any group that expresses itself against the government or reflects influence in the people, is considered an enemy of the regime.
As a Nicaraguan I thank you all for the special attention you are giving to my country, and I also encourage the Commission and the US Government to continue to support the work we do. We need this. Thank you.