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Emily A. Cole

June 10th, 2024

Religious freedom and Latin America: Murillo’s rhetoric — backed by Ortega’s mano dura — confronts identity and dignity in Nicaragua

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Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Emily A. Cole

June 10th, 2024

Religious freedom and Latin America: Murillo’s rhetoric — backed by Ortega’s mano dura — confronts identity and dignity in Nicaragua

0 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Under President Daniel Ortega and his Vice President (and wife) Rosario Murillo, religious expression is met with harassment and surveillance by the government, Emily A. Cole argues.

On May 1, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2024 Report once again recommended Nicaragua to the State Department’s “Country of Particular Concern” list, where it has remained since 2021. For many, this recommendation was unsurprising given all that has transpired in the last year, fuelled by President Daniel Ortega’s unchecked political power spanning some seventeen years.

This power has spilled over into religious intolerance. Indeed, Ortega and his Vice President (and wife) Rosario Murillo have enlaced political and religious repression so much so that the two are now nearly indistinguishable across headlines. Simply expressing one’s religious convictions in Nicaragua could expose individuals to harassment by government officials, since government surveillance is everywhere, similar to how publicly sharing a political sentiment adverse to Ortega’s policies could be problematic.

But really, it is dangerous rhetoric from Murillo specifically against faith leaders that merits particular concern from human rights advocates, as freedom of religion or belief underpins democracy and is essential not only to stability but also human flourishing. This is also why said rhetoric, backed by harassment, detainment, or abuse, doesn’t just threaten faith communities but rather the rights of all Nicaraguans. International advocates must therefore continue to be proactive in exploring areas of support and denouncing the assault on this fundamental freedom in the heart of Central America, as its effects could have lasting human rights consequences across Latin America.

An attack on human dignity

Government suppression of faith—whether for political or social reasons—is still an attack on religious freedom. Article 18 and 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights declare that Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” and “[…] the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts…”. This translates into a right to manifest one’s faith peacefully through political, social, or artistic voice, or acts, either privately or in public. Indeed, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) highlighted this in their most recent thematic report, reiterating that the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man (Article III) and the American Convention on Human Rights (Article 12) clearly recognise and protect this right (see also IACHR statements here and here.) Cancelling Holy Week processions across Nicaragua (which are largely cultural in nature), seizing assets and shutting down Catholic universities and nearly all non-governmental institutions (many religiously-affiliated), and exiling religious leaders, however, violates it all.

From an Article 18 perspective then, it is useful to acknowledge one aspect of “Orteguista repression” as being an intentional attack on the fundamental freedoms of faith communities and thus, their human dignity. It is true that the 2018 protests marked the start of increased repression, since it was Managua’s cathedral that sheltered student demonstrators and spoke out against President Ortega’s violence. As a result, Ortega accused those bishops (and others) of being “terrorists” and “coup-mongers.” Even church radio stations were shuttered by the government after this. But what appeared deeply political was also—and remains—deeply spiritual, as religious freedom violations engender oppression and distort dignity and identity, since individuals are both physical and spiritual beings. Indeed, there is a “strong and deep nexus” between religious freedom and human dignity.

This is why even with targeted attacks on religious institutions and practices over the past five years, it is the chilling monologues by Vice President Murillo against religious leaders spanning across 2023 and 2024 that are particularly troubling. In said monologues, Murillo directly attacks Catholic leaders’ faith, hurling insults by calling certain priests and bishops “servants/representatives of Satan”, “blasphemers” and “false representatives of God.” Other names included “terrorists in cassocks” and “coup-plotters.” In fact, the top words she used in these speeches were “hate”, “evil”, and “terrorism/terrorists.”

Thus, while politics play a large role, the language of Murillo denotes something aimed at attacking both individual and collective faith rights. Both she and Ortega have made clear that a faith not aligned with their government is a faith unworthy of freedom, exemplified by the rewarding of “complicit” evangelical pastors. Accordingly, the freedom “to manifest [one’s] religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” has been purposely undermined. While also done to consolidate power, Murillo’s rhetoric and Ortega’s actions, together, should be similarly recognised as campaigns to delineate what is acceptable faith and what manifestations of certain beliefs are worthy of government protection. By labelling a faith leader a “false representative of God” or any faith group as a “mafia” for that matter, a government condemns the members of that faith in a society. And that is what Ortega-Murillo have done, which has quickly materialised into restrictions on culturally relevant religious practices, the limiting of expression and assembly related to specific faith communities, and even the stripping of Nicaraguan citizenship for some, followed by exile.

By rendering a faith or its leaders as “false”/“terrorists”, Ortega-Murillo are attacking the purest part of the human experience for thousands of Nicaraguans.

Direct attacks on religion culminated years of growing Orteguista repression

But 2024 Nicaragua, under Ortega’s rule, has been a long time coming. A former Marxist guerrilla and first elected president in 1984 at the height of the Sandinista Revolution, Ortega, a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), served for a single term. In three subsequent presidential elections—1990, 1996 and 2001—he was defeated. It was not until the 2006 election that Ortega again assumed the presidency after running on promises of programs for the poor. Though some of those promises were kept, it was only shortly after taking office that fundamental freedoms and access to government reports were slowly restricted, with Ortega taking calculated steps to expand his control.

After winning his third term in 2011, a 2014 amendment to extend presidential term limits became necessary to stay in power. With its passing by an FSLN dominated National Assembly (only five years after he had first successfully petitioned Nicaragua’s Supreme Court to lift the constitutional ban on consecutive re-elections), Ortega won his third consecutive (and fourth total) term in 2016, this time with his wife as his running mate. Quickly, the despotic couple turned their rule into what appeared to be a coordinated attack on faith communities and institutions.

Indeed, on Palm Sunday of this year—just over ten years since term limits were amended and forty years since Ortega was first elected—Catholic churches in Nicaragua were once more met with police and paramilitaries inside and outside of parishes, filming and photographing laity who were told to “watch their words.” Some students were reportedly arrested for simply carrying the image of a saint and over 3,000 religious processions were cancelled during the entirety of the Holy Week, though estimates are as high as 4,800. This follows Murillo’s 2022 public comments calling Catholic priests “retarded and backwards… disguising themselves with masks and supposedly elegant costumes,” and later, accusing bishops of “violating the gospel to commit crimes against humanity.”

In the last two years alone, dozens of religious universities have been attacked, with the government seizing their assets and forcing mass closures. This was in addition to the forced closures of over 3,000 media outlets and NGOs managed by dioceses (including dozens of international NGOs).

But it has not just been Catholic churches and leaders facing harassment and abuse. Evangelicals have also been targeted, with some 256 evangelical organisations and nearly two dozen evangelical churches forcibly closed. Like Maduro in Venezuela, Ortega even shifted his allegiance towards Evangelical leaders in 2018 for political gain, only to later turn his back harshly on those not aligning with his government. Most recently, 11 Protestant individuals involved in training church leadership were arrested and detained in inhumane conditions without any evidence produced to support the charges alleged.

Arbitrary detentions against various faith leaders then, and their communities, continue.

Still, the relationship between government and the Roman Catholic Church has historically fluctuated. The Sandinista Revolution played a large role in overthrowing dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979, and many liberationist Catholics and left-wing priests and activists united with Sandinistas for that common effort, later supporting Ortega during his first presidential term. The Church’s mediation was indeed key in the aftermath of the so-called “Somoza dynasty” which, spanning back to 1936, was accused of numerous human rights abuses over those many decades. But the 1980s were still marked by a tumultuous journey between the FSLN party and the Church, including with Ortega himself. As a revolutionary and politician, Ortega maintained a tense relationship with the Church, dependent on what was most beneficial politically (for example, on one extreme, the FSLN occasionally closed Catholic Radio in the ‘80s and exiled critical priests, while on the other side, Ortega publicly “converted” to Catholicism in the early 2000s and the FSLN endorsed a law to ban abortion in order to align with the Church).

Today, however, there is no back-and-forth, as the Roman Catholic Church no longer finds itself debating Liberation Theology or working hand-in-hand with the government on social programs. Instead, religious leaders of all backgrounds outspoken of Ortega’s governance and abuses, or even simply opposed to his politics, are accused of “grave crimes and horrors” and ultimately, of having supported Somoza, who Ortega—and arguably the Church in the end—helped to oust. (It is not hard to note the irony of that sentiment.)

Now, approximately 317 people have been stripped of their nationality since 2018, including 222 political prisoners labeled “traitors”– many being priests or nuns now forced into exile. Another 260,000 have fled the country. And as recent as late April 2024, the government cancelled the legal status of an additional fifteen NGOs whose assets will be transferred to the State.

Thus, while the 2018 protests led to over 355 reported deaths at the hands of authorities on top of thousands of imprisonments, many more thousands are living in fear in today, unable to enjoy their fundamental rights related to expression, assembly, and importantly, their religious beliefs.

The year ahead for advocates

The international community has taken concerted steps to condemn Nicaragua’s actions concerning religious freedom. As mentioned above, Nicaragua was designated a U.S. State Department Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in 2021 and redesignated in 2022, taking its place among the world’s worst religious freedom violators. And just this past May, the Biden administration placed new sanctions and other restrictions on Nicaragua, noting religious freedom and freedom of expression violations as two of the motivating factors. Similarly, the UK has sanctioned 14 Nicaraguan officials since 2020, with members of the British Parliament recently issuing a report on “The Silencing of Democracy in Nicaragua” which contained statements on the erosion of fundamental democratic pillars, including freedom of religion or belief. And last year, the Chair of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance (IRFBA)—currently comprised of 38 countries—issued a statement condemning the government’s oppressive acts towards the Church.

International pressure on Nicaragua to uphold human rights was also reaffirmed by Member States to the Organization of American States (OAS) who continue to denounce Ortega’s actions despite Nicaragua’s official withdrawal from the multilateral body in November 2023. And just last month, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an autonomous organ of the OAS, granted precautionary measures in favour of the eleven Protestant leaders from Puerta de la Montaña currently deprived of liberty.

But challenges persist. A number of Nicaraguan embassies and consulates have been closed around the world (including in the United States, Britain, Germany, Mexico and South Korea), while Ortega allegedly agreed to open an embassy in Pyongyang, North Korea. Not to mention Ortega’s government has also been accused by a panel of UN human rights experts of systematic human rights abuses amounting to crimes against humanity, mostly described as politically motivated with respect to the 2018 protests.

With unlimited consecutive terms, increasingly dangerous rhetoric, and public partnerships with China and Russia, it is clear Ortega will no longer seek reconciliation with certain faith communities even for political gain. The Somoza days are long gone, the FSLN maintains power, and his wife’s rhetoric demonstrates what they consider acceptable faith. Ortega no longer has reason to appeal to democratic governance, so the international human rights community must continue to pursue areas of support and action. Amplifying citizens’ voices to promote accountability by offering resources for civil society spaces outside the Nicaraguan territory, probing legal mechanisms through concerted multilateral efforts (including re-examining the scope of “universal jurisdiction”), and helping to strengthen “south-south ties” could be important areas to explore. And of course, the international community must continue to care for Nicaraguans already exiled and/or left stateless.

Acknowledging human dignity requires governments to protect people of all faith backgrounds and for advocates (and international bodies) to monitor and hold those governments accountable. If the right of an individual to freely, and peacefully, live and act according to their beliefs is compromised, their identity—their humanity—is slowly smothered.

Photo by the Taiwan Presidential Office

About the author

Emily A. Cole

Emily A. Cole is a lawyer focused on human rights in Latin America. She currently acts as a researcher and legal analyst for Pepperdine University’s Program on Global Faith and Inclusive Societies where she has been engaging the Organization of American States on matters of religious freedom. A ’17-’18 Fulbright scholar to Ecuador, Emily earned her J.D. at the University of Wisconsin Law School where she interned for human rights NGOs in both Venezuela and DC.

Posted In: FoRB series

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