According to tens of thousands who rallied in Nicaragua on Saturday in defense of the Catholic Church, particularly the bishops, the prelates are “neither terrorists nor coup-mongers, [but] shepherds with the smell of their sheep.”
Though protests have become common affairs in Nicaragua, with millions taking to the streets since April to protest the government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murrillo, Saturday’s wasn’t just another rally.
Technically called a “Pilgrimage in solidarity with the bishops and shepherds,” the massive gathering was a response to attacks the prelates have suffered in recent months at the hands of the government and Ortega-allied forces.
Father Carlos Avilés, a member of a dialogue commission and the head of the archdiocesan lay pastoral outreach efforts, was the Church representative who addressed the crowd as they gathered at the doors of Managua’s cathedral.
“As Christians, we must defend these attitudes: don’t be led by violence, live a radical pacifism and a radical humanism rooted in the person and in helping a brother in need,” he said.
The Church, he added, will always opt for “dialogue,” for solving problems by talking, “with the use of reason and not violence.”
“For this reason, the Church, even if it’s hurt, even if it’s criticized, will always opt for dialogue, so that people understand each other by talking,” Avilés said.
The priest was interrupted several times by the crowd, which either applauded or chanted slogans in support of the bishops such as “you shall not kill,” when he urged those attending not to be tempted by violence.
Being a “radical pacifist,” he said, is one of the attitudes of Christians who, as Jesus, must be willing to do as he did: “turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecuted him and bless those who cursed him.”
“When the Roman soldier slapped him in the face, Jesus said to him: If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” the priest said, once again being interrupted by the crowd.
Recently, several bishops have been attacked – one slashed in the arm by a knife, another shot at as he was driving from one diocese to another – and many more churches have suffered attacks by paramilitary groups backing the government of the former guerrilla leader.
Priests have opened churches as make-shift hospitals during the clashes between young protesters and the army and paramilitary forces. On several occasions, religious men and women have placed themselves as human shields in front of protesters and brokered the end of violent clashes.
In response, Ortega has verbally assaulted the bishops, saying that from the beginning of the crisis he thought the bishops were “mediators, but no, they are committed to the coup-mongers. They were part of the coup-mongers’ plan.”
According to the Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association, 448 people have died during more than three months of political upheaval and protests demanding Ortega leave office.