Bishops, journalists attacked at church in Nicaragua

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes Solorzano of Managua, Nicaragua, and Auxiliary Bishop Silvio Baez Ortega, arrive as anti-government protests continue July 9 in Diriamba

Nicaraguan bishops and clergy were attacked by armed groups aligned with the government July 9 as violence in the Central American country escalated and affected the Catholic Church, which has provided humanitarian assistance in its parishes and has tried to diffuse a worsening political crisis through dialogue.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes Solórzano of Managua and his auxiliary, Bishop Silvio José Báez, and Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the apostolic nuncio, were among clergy from Managua pummeled as they attempted to protect St. Sebastian Basilica in the city of Diriamba from an incursion by a pro-government mob. Báez and at least one other priest were injured. Journalists also were attacked and had cameras and other equipment stolen.

The bishops and clergy also tried to free anti-government protesters inside the church as masked individuals and mobs outside chanted “murderers” at the prelates. Pro-government media, meanwhile, accused the church of allowing weapons to be stored inside its properties.

“I was injured, punched in the stomach, they took my episcopal symbols away from me, and verbally attacked me,” Báez tweeted, along with a picture of a gash on his arm and blood-stained habit. “I’m OK, thank God. The basilica is free and so are those who were inside.”

“We have felt brutal force against our priests. We had gone to (the) parish to console our priests, to accompany them in this suffering and were attacked,” he said.

The attack on the bishops came as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega sent police and paramilitaries to counter protesters calling for his ouster.

The protests — originally triggered over reforms to the social security system in April — have claimed at least 300 lives. Seventeen people were killed July 7 and 8 during repressions by police and paramilitaries in the cities of Jinotepe, Diriamba and Matagalpa, according to Amnesty International.

The church delegation traveled to Diriamba to “show solidarity” with priests in the area after a massacre, Fr. Victor Rivas, executive secretary of the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference, told Catholic News Service.

Churches in Nicaragua are often used to provide medical attention, according to Rivas, as people are often afraid to take the injured to hospitals, where they risked being “taken prisoner.”

“They’ve viewed churches as places where people are plotting against the government,” Rivas said.

On July 8, Báez said the bishops would “seriously assess” their continuation as mediators in a national dialogue.

“We cannot continue sitting with representatives of a government that lies, doesn’t accept responsibility and continues massacring the civil population,” Báez said during Mass, according to the newspaper La Prensa.

“The height of the shamelessness is presenting themselves as innocent and even as victims. When murder is accompanied by cynicism, by lying, it’s doubly grave in the eyes of God.”

The pope is “worried” about the crisis and encouraged the bishops “to continue forward in accompanying the suffering people and continue the work of dialogue.”