MANAGUA – Less than three months ago, in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 9 municipal elections, President Daniel Ortega’s relationship with religious leaders – especially evangelical Christians – appeared cozier than ever before.
The president was handing out land titles to church leaders, quoting Bible passages with visiting evangelical leaders, inaugurating a BiblePlaza in downtown Managua and making Nicaragua the first country in the world to declare a “National Day to Honor the Bible.”
Throughout September, Ortega’s religious fervor seemed to grow stronger with each day the municipal elections got closer. On Sept. 27, Ortega met with visiting U.S. evangelical leader Rev. Sonny Holland and told him, “Christ has always been my inspiration, since I was a child.”
First Lady Rosario Murillo, too, felt so moved by the spirit during a meeting with evangelical leaders that she proclaimed Nicaragua is “moving toward the establishment of God’s earthly kingdom.”
The religious talk has continued after the elections, with a new government ad released before the final vote count was announced to proclaim the Sandinistas winners in more than 100 mayorships, “thanks to God.”
María López, author of various theological works, including “Just Jesus” and “Another God Is Possible,” says that Ortega seems to be trying to “confiscate” religious symbolism for political purposes, as part of his effort to consolidate control in Nicaragua.
Until recently, the Catholic Church – once the Sandinista government’s strongest political opponent in the 1980s – seemed willing to go along with Ortega’s use of religious icons and language in exchange for other concessions that came as perks for having a good relationship with the government: a ban on therapeutic abortion, public recognition of the church’s leadership in communities and even financial help for patron saint festivals and the catholic university, López said.
Yet amid widespread clamors of electoral fraud last month and Sandinista claims to a victory aided by divine intervention, the Catholic Church has grown increasingly concerned with the government’s use of religious symbols for political purposes.
A line appears to have been crossed in the post-electoral street violence, when Sandinista sympathizers clashed with the opposition while dressed in government Tshirts bearing religious messages of “Love is stronger than hate” and “All things are possible with love.”
The Episcopal Conference came out with a strongly worded statement saying that in “moments of national crisis” the Catholic Church “cannot watch stolidly as Catholic religious symbols and language are used for political ends and even for (ends) totally contrary to the values that they represent.”
The Sandinista National Liberation Front responded aggressively to the bishops’ message, warning the church not to meddle in government affairs. One government official even accused the bishops of “sinning” by criticizing the administration.
Nelson Artola, president of the government’s poverty relief fund FISE, accused the Episcopal Conference of forming part of a plan to “destabilize” the Ortega government.
The Ortega government then went a step further by erecting statues of the Virgin Mary in all the traffic roundabouts in Managua and urging all Sandinista supporters and government workers to “celebrate with enthusiasm and religious fervor” the December religious festivities in honor of the Immaculate Conception.
López said the government’s use of the church’s central image – the Virgin Mary – is extremely offensive to the Catholic Church following its recent call to respect religious imagery. She deems the Sandinista call to “participate” in the religious processions an attempt to take over the traditional celebrations as part of the administration’s obsession with putting its mark on everything.
“One of the characteristics of this government is that it doesn’t recognize limits. It’s like they have political autism; they don’t have contact with reality,” López told The Nica Times this week.
Others have also apparently been offended by the government’s Virgin Mary statues built at traffic roundabouts across Managua.
The virgin statue at the Centroamérica turnabout on the eastern side of the city was defaced last week by unknown vandals who painted her face red, as if she were bleeding.
The Sandinistas were horrified, and were quick to blame Liberal Party opponents Eduardo Montealegre and Enrique Quiñónez for desecrating the religious symbol.
Two nights later, vandals returned and decapitated the statue and knocked it off its concrete base, prompting Sandinista media outlet www.elpueblopresidente.com to condemn the vandals to an eternity of hellfire with the headline “Montealegre’s Vandals Destroy the Image of the Virgin Mary – God Will Not Forgive.”
A week earlier, supposed Sandinista vandals in León destroyed a similar Virgin Mary statue when they ransacked the opposition radio station Radio Darío.
Bishops Speak Out
Though the Sandinista government has been using religious symbols and language since it returned to office in January 2007 – an electoral victory that was helped by Ortega’s reconciliation with Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo – the leadership of Nicaragua’s Catholic Church is strongly objecting to the government’s use of religious symbols to justify what they say were fraudulent municipal elections.
Bernardo Hombach, Bishop of Granada, told The Nica Times in an interview this week that church leaders object to the Sandinistas “manipulating” religious images to try to pacify people after a “shameless” example of “electoral fraud.”
“They didn’t even have any shame this time,” Hombach said. “They didn’t even try to bury the feathers of the stolen hen.”
Hombach said the church was upset because it had asked people to go out to vote, but then the elections were riddled with “fraud and great irregularities that were worse than in previous elections.”
While the bishop said the Catholic Church is not interested in having negative relations with the government or involving itself in partisan matters, it does feel obliged to speak up on matters of justice.
“This isn’t a political issue, but one of fraud, lies and corruption,” Hombach said. “In this sense, the church has to speak out and should speak out.”
He added that the church can’t “turn a blind eye to justice just to maintain good relations” with the government.
The Politics of Church
During the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, when Cardinal Obando was archbishop of Managua, the Catholic Church represented President Ortega’s strongest political opposition. So when Ortega again sought re-election in 2006, he decided to make nice with Obando and the church to neutralize his historical foes.
Ortega asked Obando to say a Mass for all the fallen victims of war in 2004 and took communion from the archbishop at the Mass. A year later, Ortega asked Obando to preside over his marriage to longtime partner Rosario Murillo.
As president, Ortega dubbed Obando, who retired as archbishop in 2006, the “Cardinal of Reconciliation and Peace” and appointed him to oversee the government’s Commission on Reconciliation and Peace, linking the church’s traditional leadership even more tightly to his administration.
Andrés Pérez, a Nicaraguan political science professor at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, said the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference was “always divided between those who liked Obando’s involvement in politics and those who did not.”
But almost three years after Obando stepped down as archbishop, Pérez said the Episcopal Conference is “starting to find their voice” and express their distrust for the Sandinista government.
“I think that (Ortega’s) honeymoon with the church is over,” Pérez said. “I have no doubts that the church can emerge as the main opposition voice in the future. There is no other organization that can do it.”