Nicaragua's Crackdown On Catholic Church As It Outlaws Mother Teresa's 'Missionaries Of Charity' And Orders Nuns To Leave

Explained: Nicaragua's Crackdown On Catholic Church As It Outlaws Mother Teresa's 'Missionaries Of Charity' And Orders Nuns To Leave

by Swarajya Staff - Saturday, July 9, 2022 12:54 PM IST
Explained: Nicaragua's Crackdown On Catholic Church As It Outlaws Mother Teresa's 'Missionaries Of Charity' And Orders Nuns To Leave
Daniel Ortega and late Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo
  • As part of its ongoing crackdown on the Catholic Church, the leftwing Sandinista regime of President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua ordered nuns belonging to Mother Teresa-founded 'Missionaries Of Charity' to leave the country after the Jesuit organisation was stripped of its legal status.

    Here is a history of the complicated relationship between the saints and Sandinista.

As part of its ongoing crackdown on the Catholic Church, the leftwing Sandinista regime of President Daniel Ortega ordered nuns belonging to Mother Teresa-founded 'Missionaries Of Charitiy' to leave the country after the Jesuit organisation was stripped of its legal status.

The nuns were escorted by police to the border and crossed into neighbouring Costa Rica on foot.

The organisation was outlawed on June 28 by the Nicaraguan parliament, where members of President Ortega's Sandinista party hold a majority.

According to the Nicaraguan authorities, the Missionaries Of Charity "failed to comply with its law obligations", and specifically with "Law 977" on money-laundering financing of terrorism, and financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In March this year, the Ortega government expelled the Apostolic Nuncio - the Catholic Church's equivalent to an ambassador - in a move the Vatican called an "unjustified unilateral measure."

The decision on the closure comes in the context of heightened tensions between the Catholic Church and Ortega's government, which has governed the Central American country for 15 years.

The current phase of confrontation between the Sandinista government and the Catholic Church began in 2018 when the clergy was accused of sheltering protestors' against President Ortega during anti-government protests that year.

Ortega and his wife, who is now vice-president, have called bishops "coup perpetrators," "foreign agents," and accused them of preaching a false Christianity.

The Catholic Church has claimed that it has been the target of nearly 200 attacks, desecrations, harassment, and intimidation of bishops and priests. In 2019, Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez was forced to leave the Diocese of Managua at Pope Francis's request after receiving several death threats.

Over the years, the relationship between Sandinista and the Catholic Church has been complicated, marked by periods of collaboration and confrontation in a country where close to 60% of the population identifies itself as Catholic.

Saints and Sandinistas

Until the end of the cold war, Marxism and Christianity were among the powerful ideological forces often competing to wield influence.

While the Catholic Church officially denounced any attempts to find common ground between the two world views, a significant section of the clergy -particularly Catholics in Latin America -claimed that when taken in conjunction, Christianity and Marxism could work together to achieve a more equitable society. This doctrinal blend became known as liberation theology.

Liberation theology was a clerical conceptualisation. In the late 1950s and 1960s, radical youths, mostly Catholic, who were suffering from extreme exploitation and poverty, found the Marxist revolution attractive in Latin American countries. Liberating theologians offered them a heady mix of Marxism and Christianity to counter it.

To its proponents, liberation theology was a solution to the seemingly endless cycle of economic and social stagnation through a combination of revolution, class struggle, and political activism on the part of the Church. To Pope John Paul II and many other observers, however, liberation theology was radical teaching that threatened to justify the tyranny of Marxism.

Pope John Paul II, who, as a Polish Catholic, had first-hand insight into the catastrophic consequences of Marxism, had no love lost for liberation theology. So, while the Vatican was implacably opposed to liberation theology in the Cold-War West in the 1970s and 1980s, it was allowed to spread in Latin America and countries like India and Israel.

Caught in this crossfire was Nicaragua, where the Catholic clergy continued to wield power in the hierarchy of the Marxist-Leninist Sandinista regime.

The left-wing Sandinista Liberation Front Party (FSLN), under the leadership of Ortega, stormed to power in the small Central American country in 1979, overthrowing the U.S.-backed family dictatorship of the Anastasio Somoza. FSLN is named after Augusto César Sandino, (who led the Nicaraguan resistance against the United States occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s.)

The Catholic Church opposed the Sandinista struggle in the 1960s and 1970s because of its Marxist revolutionary fervour and loyalty to the Somoza regime. But sensing that the Somoza regime was becoming unpopular due to acts of repression and human abuses, the liberation theologians of the Church began to move away from the Somoza regime strategically. By the time the Sandinistas ascended to power through a 'revolution', a large section of the Church was seen supporting the Sandinistas when they overthrew Somoza.

An influential Jesuit priest who identified as a liberation theologian, Father Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, even went on to become foreign minister in Ortega's new government in 1979, a post he held until 1990. In 1985, Pope John Paul II suspended Father Brockmann from his ministry as part of a broader crackdown on adherents of liberation theology.

Given that the Sandinista government rose to power during the peak of the Cold War, Nicaragua was considered a dangerous proxy state of the Soviet Union in the U.S. backyard. The U.S. was seen as sponsoring a right-wing insurgency to topple the regime, with the help of "Contras". Eventually, Sandinistas had to enter into a negotiated settlement with the Washington-backed counter-revolutionaries. The Sandinista government was eventually ousted from power in the early 90's.

In 2007, Ortega made a dramatic comeback as President of Nicaragua after 16 years in the wilderness. Ortega's victory was partly attributed to his backing of a total abortion ban, also supported by Nicaragua's conservative Catholic hierarchy.

Ortega also often resorted to use of religious imagery to drive home his populist message and frequently touted his late-life conversion to Catholicism.

After his comeback, Ortega also won the support of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, one of Nicaragua’s most influential Catholic clergy. In 2004, Obando dramatically announced reconciliation with Ortega in a deal which offered support for the FSLN in return for Ortega's support to extend the scope of ban on abortion to all cases and to seek immunity for punishment for Obando's protege Roberto Rivas. Rivas faced grave corruption charges.

As Ortega began a crackdown on political opponents to establish complete control over power, the Church again emerged as a voice of resistance to him. But with the death of Obando in 2018, Ortega turned completely against the Church.The relationship with Church has now seen a complete breakdown.

Also Read: Catholic Church And The Subservient Secularism Of Indian State

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