Police Attack the Most Crowded Way of the Cross in Nicaragua in a Holy Week Turned into Protest

In the agreement reached between the Government and the Civic Alliance on March 29 as part of the second National Dialogue, the government agreed to “ensure the right to concentration, demonstration and public mobilization”. This article shows how difficult it still is to practice these basic rights, and also the creativity of the people in exercising them during the events of Holy Week. The Nicaraguan public were surprised to learn right before the start of Holy Week – on April 10th – that the most eloquent bishop in critiquing the government response to the demonstrations – Mons. Silvio Báez – was suddenly called to Rome. 

Police Attack the Most Crowded Way of the Cross in Nicaragua in a Holy Week Turned into Protest

April 20, 2019 by Wilfredo Mirando Aburto and Carlos Herrera,

Published on UNIVISION website

[see original Spanish at https://www.univision.com/noticias/america-latina/la-policia-ataca-el-viacrucis-mas-concurrido-de-nicaragua-en-una-semana-santa-convertida-en-protesta ]

Holy Week has coincided with the first anniversary of the social and political crisis in Nicaragua. Citizens have taken advantage of the religious traditions to protest and circumvent the prohibition against political demonstrations. Nazarenes dressed in blue and white have been seen in the processions, crosses with the names of the victims of the repression, and children dressed as political prisoners. “A crucified people will always resurrect”, warned Bishop Silvio Báez.

Managua, Nicaragua.- The penitential way of the cross of Managua, one of the most popular in Semana Santa in Nicaragua, ended with a violent episode: the police attacked the faithful who attended the solemn procession not just to pray, but to protest against the government of Daniel Ortega and his repressive policies. The attack with pellets and flash bombs left at least two people wounded.

Holy Week has coincided with the first anniversary of the Nicaraguan social and political crisis that started April 18, 2018, when the citizenry took to the streets to protest against some failed reforms to social security. The traditions for the passion of Christ this year have been a syncretism of religious devotion and demands for justice and democracy.

The penitential way of the cross of Managua was one of the clearest scenarios of this convergence: thousands of people were carrying flags of Nicaragua and the Catholic Church, and alternated between shouts for libertarian slogans and the Lenten responsorials.

The Way of the Cross started at eight in the morning this Holy Friday. It went down the Carretera Masaya, the same avenue in Managua where many anti-governmental protests were held in 2018. During the entire trajectory mothers of political prisoners demanded freedom. Meanwhile the relatives of the youth murdered by the paramilitary and police repression carried on their backs wooden crosses, like Jesus in the procession, in representation of the impunity: of the 325 people murdered that human rights organizations documented, nearly 95% do not have judicial processes to investigate them.

The procession – that was presided by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes – took place normally until reaching the Metropolitan Cathedral of Managua. After the Nazarene entered the Church, dozens of youth decided to continue protesting on the grounds of the church. A group went out to the platform of the Cathedral with wooden crosses and were immediately attacked by a police contingent.

Witnesses told UNIVISION news that the officers shot firearms in the air to chase them away, and immediately discharged metal and rubber pellets at them, as well as flash grenades. Two people were reported lightly wounded and some people fainted.

Hours after the incidents, the Police apportioned responsibilities for the aggression: “A group of hooded people, armed with stones, mortars and some firearms, tried to manipulate the way of the cross of the Cathedral”, they said in a press release disseminated by the spokesperson for the Sandinista government.

As of the publication of this article, more than a hundred of demonstrators and faithful continued trapped in the Cathedral of Managua. The police kept the area closed off. Members of the Civic Alliance (the opposition that is negotiating with the government) and people from the Catholic Church were trying to mediate to evacuate the people trapped in a safe way using buses. Another episode that recalls April 19, 2018, a year ago, when the police indiscriminately attacked young people entrenched in the Cathedral.

“Christ encountered Nicaragua with 500 people murdered”

Since Palm Sunday that starts Holy Week, Nicaraguans have taken advantage of the Catholic processions and traditions to protest against the government in the light of the lack of public spaces to do so. The Sandinista administration since September 2018 has maintained a zealous police state that violently dismantles any attempt at citizen protest. In the last month more than 150 people have been detained in street protests.

Citizens have taken advantage of the Holy Week processions to persevere in their demand for justice and democracy, because they feel protected with the Catholic Church. The demonstration this Holy Friday in Managua has been one of the largest in months.

Th Catholic Church, that has provided support “to the people in their demands” since April 2018, has opened the doors of their churches and allowed the traditions of the passion of Christ to be adorned with blue and white colors instead of the traditional Lenten purple.

Father Edwin Román, one of the emblematic figures of Catholicism during the protests while trying to mediate in the conflict, placed a flag of Nicaragua on the principal altar of the Church of San Miguel in Masaya. This parish commemorated Holy Week recalling the names of the 35 people killed from that city. Some of those demonstrators were killed in the parish itself and its surroundings. The bullet-ridden walls of the church are stony witnesses to the brutal repression suffered by Masaya for months in 2018.

“We are not experiencing a Holy Week the same as previous years,” pointed out Fr. Román to Univision news. “This Holy Week Christ encountered Nicaragua with 500 people murdered by this dictatorship, more than 800 political prisoners, hundreds of brothers and sisters in exile, families divided, more hunger and less jobs,” assured the pastor, who Sandinista sympathizers have physically attacked and accused of alcoholism to discredit him.

Mothers of those killed in Masaya joined the religious activities of San Miguel. Dozens of children were dressed in jail uniforms in the procession of the captives to demand the liberation of the political prisoners. And this Holy Friday in the penitential way of the cross, Fr. Román read every one of the names of the fatal victims of Masaya, while the faithful responded, “Present, present!”

“I pointed out this reality that we are experiencing and the struggle that we Nicaraguans have with this cross, but also the hope that afterwards Nicaragua is going to resurrect,” said the priest Román.

Nazarenes dressed in blue and white

In dozens of Nicaraguan cities the faithful and citizens also found other ways to express their protest. The most common was dressing Jesus of Nazareth in blue and white tunics, the color of the civic protest. It happened in parishes in Managua, colonial Granada, León and in the city of Tipitapa, where the adolescent Richard Pavón Bermúdez was murdered at the beginning of the protests in 2018.

In the diocese of Matagalpa, led by Bishop Rolando Álvarez, dozens of altar boys in their white and red tunics recalled young Sandor Dolmus, an altar boy of the diocese of León, who was killed by a paramilitary in June of 2018.

“In this historic moment we want to say with the bishops of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua: our greatest contribution as pastors of this church that is in pilgrimage in Nicaragua will continue being accompanying the people in their sufferings and grief, in their hopes and joys, and raising our prayers of intercession so that Nicaragua might find civilized and just paths toward a peaceful solution in light of the common good”, said Bishop Álvarez on Holy Thursday.

Another one of the expressions of protest in processions happened in the municipality of San Juan de la Concepción. The actors in the traditional Judea (representation of the Passion of Christ) dressed in blue and white. In the Judea of Masatepe, one of the participants painted on their dress the name of political prisoner Christian Porras. The night before, in the same city of Masatepe, during the silent procession they lit “600 candles for those who were killed” in the atrium of the church.

The masses in many churches this Holy Week have been impregnated with messages that have further heightened the courage of the faithful and citizens to continue demanding justice and democracy. The most emotional ceremonies have been those that the auxiliary bishop of Managua has officiated, Mons. Silvio Báez, who after the Easter celebrations will be transferred to Rome.

The transfer of Báez to Rome has been interpreted by believers and non believers as a “forced exile” due to his incisive critiques of the Sandinista regime over the massacre and lack of democracy. “He (Báez) is a stone in the shoe of the government”, assured the bishop of Estelí, Abelardo Mata. This Holy Week has been the send off for Monseñor Báez, one of the most popular and respected bishops. In one of his last masses, Báez left a phrase that was taken as prophetic by Nicaragua: “A crucified people will always resurrect.”

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