A ‘demonic’ regime
When Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes heard that paramilitaries had surrounded a basilica in the city of Diriamba, he dropped everything and rushed there. Masked men seemingly working for the government had trapped protesters inside and the cardinal feared a massacre. More than 300 people have been killed in Nicaragua since April, when the state announced pension reforms and benefits cuts. The Church’s direct intervention has helped to save hundreds of lives.
Accompanied by the country’s Polish nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, and Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez, Cardinal Brenes tried to free those inside St Sebastian Basilica. The three prelates were pushed around as onlookers derided them as “murderers” (state media have portrayed demonstrators as “terrorists” and the Church as an accomplice). Bishop Báez later tweeted a photo of a gash on his arm. “I was injured, punched in the stomach, they took my episcopal symbols away from me, and verbally attacked me,” he wrote. But the trio did eventually free the protesters.
Days later, Cardinal Brenes and Archbishop Sommertag were called to another siege. Some 200 students were pinned inside a Catholic chaplaincy at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. Before the pair arrived two students were killed and at least 10 injured. They again secured the protesters’ release and arranged for them to be driven across Managua to the safety of the metropolitan cathedral.
Bishops are having to risk their lives because Ortega is desperate to cling to power
Why are churchmen having to risk their lives in a country that, despite recent growth among Mormons and Evangelicals, remains roughly 70 per cent Catholic? The answer is that the president, Daniel Ortega, is desperate to cling to power despite the nationwide protests. Ortega’s name may be familiar to those who remember the Sandinista revolution of 1979. He was a leading figure in that movement, which ended the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.
After disappearing into the political wilderness for more than a decade, Ortega returned to power in 2006. Since then he has morphed into a dictator, banning opposition candidates, packing courts with supporters and rewriting the country’s constitution. When convenient, he has treated the Church as an ally. Today, as he brutally crushes protests, he sees it as an enemy.
Despite international condemnation, Ortega seems to have largely quelled the rebellion. But to remain in power, he will have to be ever more repressive. Nicaragua’s economy is shrinking and it is hard to see how Ortega can rebuild relations with the Church, whose standing has risen thanks to its bishops’ bravery. Cardinal Brenes has denounced the regime as “demonic”, so there is not much room for compromise.
Can the Holy See help? While it could in theory act as a mediator, it will be reluctant to because of its recent experience in Venezuela, where it has failed to reconcile the government and opposition. Rome must be hoping that Ortega will step aside. Yet he is giving every indication that he will remain, even if it destroys his long-suffering country.
It is good to see that people in Scotland are taking seriously the unprovoked sectarian attack on Canon Tom White and his parishioners, which took place during an Orange walk in Glasgow earlier this month. It is a relief that the outrage at the incident – at which the parish priest was spat at, lunged at and called a “Fenian b-----d” – is not confined to Catholics and is not dismissed as merely another complaint by Catholics and of no concern to the general population. Quite rightly, this is seen as an issue that transcends religious divides, for at stake here is the basic understanding of the foundations of civil society.
Out of Order
While no one defends this sort of sectarian attack, what needs to be done now is far from clear. A petition to ban Orange walks altogether is asking for something that is legally impossible. Despite the Orange Order’s history of anti-Catholicism, there is no need to deny its right to free association and free expression, which it has been exercising since 1795.
However, it is very clear that the insults suffered by Canon White and his parishioners cross the line. The Scottish government and the local authorities in Glasgow realise that this is a challenge that cannot be ignored. The reputation of the city and the country more widely is at stake.
Should Orange marches be rerouted? The experience of Northern Ireland shows that this can lead to endless disputes. Amore enduring solution may lie with the Orange Order itself, if its members were to confront the sectarianism that attaches itself to their celebrations. They need to act; if they do not, the state will, which is less desirable.
As a sign of goodwill, they could start by meeting Canon White and his parishioners to explore the way forward. The Catholic Church is committed to dialogue. Are they?
CATHOLIC HERALD, JULY 20 2018 3