Nicaraguan Catholics have gathered for a large-scale mass in the capital, Managua, under heavy police presence after a religious procession was prohibited by the government.
The mass on Saturday followed several moves against the church in recent weeks, including the investigation and confinement of a prominent priest who had been critical of President Daniel Ortega‘s government. A day before the gathering, the Vatican for the first time expressed concern over the recent actions in the Latin American country.
Church leaders urged followers to attend the mass after they said the National Police had banned a planned procession through the city citing “internal security”.
Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes said the attendees congregated “with a lot of happiness, but also with a lot of sadness” due to “the situation we have lived in our parishes”.
“Forgive them Lord, because they know not what they do,” Brenes said.
In early August, Ortega’s government closed seven radio stations owned by the church and announced an investigation into Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who has been confined to the church’s compound in Matagalpa along with several other priests by police for nearly two weeks.
The government has accused Alvarez, a vocal critic, of promoting hate and inciting violence. Prior to confining Alvarez, police had confined a priest in Sebaco, also part of the Matagalpa diocese, for several days before eventually allowing him to leave.
On Friday, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the Organization of American States (OAS), Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz, expressed concern during a special session of the body’s permanent council and called for “finding paths of understanding based on reciprocal respect and trust, looking above all for the common good and peace”.
During the OAS meeting, 27 countries approved a resolution condemning “the forced closure of nongovernmental organisations and the harassment and arbitrary restrictions placed on religious organisations” in Nicaragua.
Rights observers say Ortega continues to crack down on freedom of expression and speech following massive anti-government protests that broke out in April 2018. At least 328 people were killed by security forces and hundreds were detained, with some allegedly tortured.
Ortega has maintained the movement was a coup attempt carried out with foreign backing and support from the Catholic church.
Police have not allowed large public gatherings in the country, except those sponsored by the government or the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front party, since September 2018.
Ahead of the October 2021 presidential election, Ortega’s government arrested dozens of opposition figures, including those likely to challenge him in the race. Ortega, a former Sandinista rebel leader, went on to win a fourth term in the polls, which foreign observers dismissed as invalid.
On Friday, Nicaragua shuttered Radio Dario, one of the last radio stations critical of Ortega, its director Anibal Toruno said on his Twitter account.