Bishops Attacked by Pro-Government Mob at Basilica in Nicaragua

Three bishops were surrounded July 9 when they tried to enter San Sebastian Basilica in Diriamba.

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MANAGUA, Nicaragua — A group of bishops in Nicaragua who went Monday to free a group of protesters who had taken refuge in a basilica the previous day were themselves assaulted by a pro-government group.

Protests against President Daniel Ortega that began April 18 have resulted in more than 300 deaths. The country’s bishops have mediated on-again, off-again peace talks between the government and opposition groups.

Cardinal Leopoldo José Brenes Solorzano of Managua, 69; his auxiliary, Bishop Silvio José Baez Ortega, 60; and Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, 50, apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua, were surrounded July 9 when they tried to enter San Sebastian Basilica in Diriamba, about 25 miles south of Managua.

Their route was blocked, and the pro-government groups called them murderers and liars. Among those trapped in the basilica were volunteer medics.

Bishop Baez posted a tweet showing a cut on his arm and saying, “Besieged by an angry mob who wanted to enter the Basilica of San Sebastian in Diriamba, I was wounded, hit in the stomach, robbed of my episcopal insignia and verbally attacked. I am well, thanks be to God. The basilica was liberated, and those who were within.”

The Archdiocese of Managua called the attack that was committed “by persons close to the government and paramilitaries” “condemnable and repudiable.”

The bishops were visiting Diriamba after what the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights reported as the deadliest day in the country since the country's unrest began more than two months ago.

The rights group said that 38 people were killed during clashes July 8. Of these, 31 were anti-government protesters, four were police officers, and three were members of pro-government groups. Most of those killed were in Diriamba and nearby Jinotepe.

The Nicaraguan bishops’ conference said the delegation of bishops was “fulfilling the mission of Jesus Christ, to be at the side of the suffering people, a pastoral visit to the priests and faithful of the Carazo department, the victims of police, paramilitaries and crowds producing death and dolour.”

Cardinal Brenes said he had “felt the brutal force” exercised against his priests. “We have gone to the parishes to console our priests, to accompany them in their suffering, and we have received aggressions.”

Barricades and roadblocks are now found throughout the country, and clashes frequently turn lethal. Bishops and priests across Nicaragua have worked to separate protesters and security forces, and tthey have been threatened and shot.

The violence in Diriamba and Jinotepe was focused on police and paramilitaries trying to clear barricades set up and manned by protesters.

Bishop Rolando José Alvarez Lagos of Matagalpa said the government efforts to clear roadblocks were made “at the price of blood and death” and that the government has become blinded by “arrogance and pride.”

Shortly after the bishops were assaulted in Diriamba, paramilitaries and government sympathizers were profaning and sacking St. James the Apostle parish in Jinotepe.

The parish showed on Facebook that it had been desecrated by “persons, paramilitaries accompanied by police forces,” who were “destroying pews, tables and medications.”

The medications had been used in part to provide medical care for those wounded in the July 8 riots in Diriamba.

The profaners threw garbage at the parish’s priests and threatened to burn the church.

The Nicaraguan bishops’ conference has called off the working groups meant to mediate in the country’s crisis, and protesters are planning a strike July 12.

Nicaragua’s crisis began after Ortega announced social security and pension reforms. The changes were soon abandoned in the face of widespread, vocal opposition, but protests only intensified after more than 40 protesters were killed by security forces initially.

Anti-government protesters have been attacked by “combined forces” made up of regular police, riot police, paramilitaries and pro-government vigilantes.

The Nicaraguan government has suggested that protesters are killing their own supporters so as to destabilize Ortega’s administration.

The Church in Nicaragua was quick to acknowledge the protesters’ complaints.

The pension reforms that triggered the unrest were modest, but protests quickly turned to Ortega’s authoritarian bent.

Ortega has been president of Nicaragua since 2007 and oversaw the abolition of presidential term limits in 2014.

The Church has suggested that elections, which are not scheduled until 2021, be held in 2019, but Ortega ruled this out July 7.

Ortega was a leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which had ousted the Somoza dictatorship in 1979 and fought U.S.-backed right-wing counterrevolutionaries during the 1980s. Ortega was also leader of Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.