Nicaragua again bans Holy Week processions amid crackdown

Participants take part in a Holy Week procession in León, Nicaragua, in April 2015.
Participants take part in a Holy Week procession in León, Nicaragua, in April 2015. | Wikimedia Commons/Plutonide54321,_Templo_de_San_Felipe,_Le%C3%B3n_Nicaragua.jpg

Nicaragua has banned the Catholic Church’s public Holy Week celebrations for a second straight year amid other repressive measures that have included Protestant organizations.

In the Holy Week leading up to Easter, the Catholic Church traditionally organizes colorful religious processions in the streets of towns and cities throughout Nicaragua. While imprisoning and exiling priests last year, the government also limited Holy Week celebrations to the interior of church buildings, and last month it renewed the ban for this year’s Easter season.

Vice President Rosario Murillo, wife of dictator Daniel Ortega, indicated officials will replace traditional religious processions with “popular processions” propagating communist ideology. In February she told Nicaragua’s state-run television station that the Institute of Tourism would organize the “popular processions” emphasizing the communist government’s ideology during the Holy Week preceding Easter on March 31.

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Dismissing accusations of persecuting the Catholic Church, Murillo asserted, “If they’re arresting a priest, it must be for some reason,” reported news outlet Gaceta de la Iberosfera.   

Despite the ban, some Catholic churches plan to organize smaller-scale processions near their buildings, anti-government activist Martha Patricia Molina told Gaceta, describing the Ortega regime as a “criminal dictatorship that not even during Lent ceases its hatred against the Catholic Church.”

The ban on Holy Week celebrations is one demonstration of the Nicaraguan government’s descent into a brutal authoritarian regime that has increasingly silenced Christians since 2018.

Protestant organizations have not been spared. Of the 342 religious organizations the government has closed down or dissolved since 2021, at least 256 were associated with Evangelical or other Protestant organizations, according to a study released in December by the Nicaragua Never Again Human Rights Collective entitled “Closing of Civic Space.” Of the remainder, 43 were Catholic and 43 others associated with other churches.

The religious organizations were among the 3,552 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) closed down, according to the report.

Evangelical leaders have largely refrained from denouncing human rights abuses by the Ortega regime, but the government has been taking away their ability to operate in the country, albeit more quietly and gradually than actions against the Catholic church, the coordinator of the Costa Rica-based collective, Wendy Flores, told The AP.

She said the regime has taken away Protestants’ permits to operate and receive funds from abroad. Of the 256 Evangelical organizations closed or dissolved, 183 were shuttered in 2022, Flores said. The government has closed their bank accounts and confiscated properties, although some are still serving people in a more limited say.

Government hostility toward the Roman Catholic Church has been more direct and overt. Officials took 1,200 actions against the Catholic Church between 2019 and 2023, expelling dozens of priests and nuns and sentencing others to prison terms of eight to 30 years, according to the Nicaragua Never Again Human Rights Collective.

About 45% of Nicaragua’s population is estimated to be Catholic, with an equal percentage said to be Evangelical or other Protestants.

Nicaragua’s arrest, imprisonment and exiling of priests and nuns began after Catholic leaders criticized the government’s deadly repression of protests over social security cutbacks for retirees in April 2018. More than 300 protestors were killed in spite of Catholic leaders’ efforts to provide refuge and mediate dialogue.

The government unexpectedly freed from prison two bishops, 15 priests and two seminary students on Jan. 14 and expelled them to the Vatican. Among those released was Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who had been arrested in 2022 for criticizing the regime and sentenced to 26 years in prison for “treason.” After his release on Jan. 14, he was exiled to the Vatican, making a total of 19 priests the regime has exiled.

Within 72 hours of the Jan. 14 releases, authorities arrested another priest. Ezequiel Buenfil Batun, rector of the San Juan Neumann Convent in Chinandega, was arrested on Jan. 16. On the same day the Ministry of Interior canceled the legal status of nine organizations, including the Foundation of Consecrated Missionaries of St. Salvador to which Buenfil Batun belonged.

Released on Jan. 14 along with Alvarez were priests detained in December for expressing solidarity with him and others.

When Alvarez, bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa and apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Esteli, was arrested in 2022, he refused to accept banishment to the United States and on Feb. 9, 2023, was transferred to the maximum security La Modelo prison. The next day he was sentenced to 26 years and four months in prison in a process widely regarded as illegal. 

The Ortega regime has subjected 203 priests and nuns to exile or prison from 2018 to 2024, according to rights activist Molina, an attorney who has fled to the United States. More than 80% of the cases were recorded in 2023, she told media outlet Confidencial.

Molina counted 307 “aggressions” against the Catholic Church in 2023. Government repression has had a chilling effect on Catholic leaders, with few even daring to report the 30 cases of desecrations of their buildings, and local officials reviling those that do, according to Molina.

Ortega and his wife Murillo have reportedly likened the Catholic clergy’s defense of civil protests to acts of terrorism linked to coup plots. Surveillance has increased as parishioners increasingly find people in the pews they do not recognize. One told AP that some fear even a prayer for the safety of imprisoned clergy can be reported as punishable opposition.

“All the time the silence gets deeper,” Molina told AP. “If it’s dangerous to pray the rosary in the street, it is exceedingly so to report attacks. Many priests believe that if they make reports, there will be more reprisals against the communities. We as laypeople would like for them to speak, but the only alternatives are cemetery, prison or exile.”

This article was originally published by Christian Daily International. 

Christian Daily International provides biblical, factual and personal news, stories and perspectives from every region, focusing on religious freedom, holistic mission and other issues relevant for the global Church today.

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