Nicaragua

Arson or Accident? How a Cathedral Fire Reignited Tensions Over Religious Freedom in Nicaragua

On July 31, 2020, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Nicaragua’s capital city of Managua caught fire and nearly burned to the ground. Witnesses in the cathedral’s chapel testified to seeing a man wearing a hoodie launch a bomb into the building. Some witnesses claim that the man shouted, “I come to the blood of Christ” as he threw the bomb into the chapel.

The fire mainly affected the Chapel of the Blood of Christ which houses one of the most venerated crucifix statues in Nicaragua. The statue, known as the Imágen de la Sangre de Cristo (Image of the Blood of Christ) has been in Managua for 382 years. Renowned for being visited by Pope John Paul II in 1996, the statue has become a sacred Nicaraguan symbol of Jesus’ love and steadfastness. The statue has notably survived four earthquakes which, in turn, earned it the nickname of  “The Lord of Miracles.” However, after the July 31st fire, the statue was burned significantly, making it nearly unrecognizable. 

 

La Imágen de la Sangre de Cristo before it was destroyed in the fire / Photo Courtesy: Cesar Perez

 

The tragic fire and the damage done to the Imágen de la Sangre de Cristo has left many in the international Catholic community saddened and heartbroken. In a public statement, the archdiocese of Managua called the incident a “totally condemnable act of sacrilege and desecration.” The archbishop of the archdiocese of Managua, Leopoldo Brenes, also maintained that the fire was both a terrorist and criminal act, saying, “Without a doubt the devil is on the loose. He wants to hurt the church, the bishops, the priests, our religious, and our faithful.”

In the Vatican City, Pope Francis, the international leader of the Catholic church, expressed his commiseration saying, “I think of the Nicaraguan people who suffer from the attack on the Cathedral of Managua, where the venerated image of Christ that has accompanied and sustained the life of the faithful people for centuries has been almost destroyed. Dear Nicaraguan brothers, I am close to you and I pray for you.” 

The European Bloc addressed the fire with a message of support: “We express our solidarity with the Archdiocese of Managua, the Catholic community and the whole of Nicaraguan society. We deeply regret and condemn the attack perpetrated against the Cathedral of Managua, denounced by the Archdiocese of Managua. It is important that the competent authorities carry out an expeditious and transparent investigation. The European Union defends tolerance and freedom of religion. All places of worship must be respected and protected.”

 

 

Translation:We condemn today’s violent attack in the Cathedral of Managua that constitutes the most recent of a series of deplorable attacks in Catholic temples throughout Nicaragua. I share the profound pain of the Nicaraguan Catholic Community for the damage caused to a sacred image that has survived natural disasters and has been venerated by generations of Nicaraguans, as they have the Catholic Church. I join the calls for these events to be thoroughly investigated and those responsible brought to justice in accordance with the law. Stopping these attacks against the church and its parishioners is urgent.” -Levin Sullivan, US Ambassador to Nicaragua

One of the most intriguing circumstances surrounding the fire is the debate over its cause. While the archdiocese of Managua and eye witnesses contend that the fire was an arson caused by an unidentified man, the Nicaraguan police claim that the fire was accidental. After investigating the scene of the fire, the police concluded that there was an accumulation of alcohol vapors and chemicals from disinfectant spray in the chapel’s ceiling which, after being activated by hot air from candles inside of the chapel, sparked the fire. They also stated that “the fire in the Chapel of the Blood of Christ was not intentional, ruling out criminal action.”

 

Photo Courtesy: FarodiRoma

 

However, after hearing the police’s conclusion, Cardinal Brenes questioned their findings due to some factual inconsistencies. The most glaring incongruity is that, according to Brenes, there were no candles in the chapel, making it impossible for the chemical mixture to become ignited. Another contradiction to the police account is that while the police claimed that the fire spread when it engulfed curtains and rugs in the chapel, Brenes asserted that the chapel was decorated with neither curtains nor rugs. Brenes’ doubts about the fire being accidental could stem from the fact that smaller Catholic churches in Nicaragua were attacked just days before the cathedral fire. Although evidence connecting the attacks remains to be proven, they raised public suspicions, as several Catholic institutions were damaged in a short window of time. 

 

Cardinal Brenes addressing parishioners outside of the Cathedral a few days after the fire / Photo Courtesy: VOA

 

Due to these contrasting accounts, Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights is conducting an independent investigation to discern the fire’s true cause. Since the release of the police report; however, many have come to question the integrity of the investigation given how quickly the police dismissed arson as a possible explanation for the fire. 

The Ortega regime’s tumultuous history with the church only concerns doubters further. For example, in August of 2019, a group of mothers in Masaya, Nicaragua started a hunger strike in the San Miguel Arcángel Church to protest the Ortega regime’s detention of their sons and daughters as well as other political dissidents and peaceful protesters. In response, Ortega ordered the National Police to surround the church in order to trap the protesters inside and prevent parishioners from providing them with water. During the blockade, 13 activists trying to help and support the protesters were met with arbitrary arrests.

 

Mothers protesting the detention of their children in Masaya, Nicaragua / Photo Courtesy: AP Photo/Alfredo Zuniga

 

After hearing about the Masaya protest, more mothers gathered in the Cathedral of Managua to go on a parallel hunger strike in solidarity with the Masaya group. These women were not only cut off from water and electricity, but were attacked with stones thrown by Ortega sympathizers. The treatment of protesters in both Masaya and Managua drew the attention of the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights who urged the Nicaraguan authorities to stop the siege in the name of human rights. 

Targeting the Catholic Church has also been executed in less organized ways. The Ortega regime has sent followers to secretly infiltrate churches, harass and even threaten priests and church leaders, and surround parishes during masses. Priests and bishops who have sympathized with protesters fighting for democracy have been violently assaulted by government-sponsored mobs. Ortega, himself, has also publicly accused the Catholic Church of plotting a coup against him, harboring weapons, being led by “terrorists” and “pedophiles” and, in an ironic choice of words, wanting to “crucify” the country. Nicaragua’s treatment of Catholics has earned the country a place on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2020 special watch list, a list of countries that systematically violate religious freedom.

 

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega at a political rally / Photo Courtesy: AFP

 

With this said, Ortega’s persecution of the Catholic Church begs the question: What has the Church done to warrant such hostility? Over the years, as Ortega has cracked down on opposition to his regime, the Church has become a safe haven for his adversaries. As of 2020, 90% of Nicaraguans are members of Christian denominations with 73% being Roman Catholic. Because a vast majority of the country identifies as Catholic, Ortega does not want the Catholic Church to become associated with defiance of his policies or resistance to his leadership. However, the Church has housed opponents and defended their right to protest, which, in Ortega’s eyes, is a direct challenge to his authority. Karl Marx said it best when he dubbed religion the “opiate of the masses;” because religion is incredibly influential in a person’s life, Ortega does not want the Church to mobilize its followers to incite an insurrection against him. This line of thinking could explain Ortega’s efforts to demonize the church in public statements and accuse it of staging a coup.

Despite the opposition it faces, the Church continues to bolster basic human rights, such as the freedoms of religion and speech. In 2019, Silvio Báez, a Nicaraguan auxiliary bishop, made a speech in light of Ortega’s imprisonment of dissidents and treatment of peaceful demonstrators. Báez himself faced hostility in the form of death threats and attacks from pro-government groups. The bishop faced this antagonism to such an extent that Pope Francis asked him to come to Rome to preserve his life. In his speech, the last he made before leaving for Rome, Báez encouraged Nicaraguans to continue to fight for religious freedom, saying, “Our people are a crucified people, but we will resurrect to be a society based on justice, where it is not a crime to think differently. God is on the side of the victim, not the executioner.”

 

A portrait of Nicaraguan Bishop Silvio Báez / Photo Courtesy: El Confidencial

 

It is uplifting that despite constant persecution, the Catholic Church continues to have faith in a brighter future. A theme that pervades biblical teachings is the long-suffering of Christ and his disciples. The Bible warns believers about hostility that they may face after choosing to be a Christian, but it encourages them to remain steadfast in their faith and look to God for strength. Catholic leaders and believers in Nicaragua are certainly exemplifying this teaching as they persist in their faith and continue to aid those who fight for equality, democracy, and freedom.

Featured Image: A photo taken of the inside of The Chapel of the Blood of Christ a few days after the fire / Photo Courtesy: AFP

 


Zenia Grzebin | Wake Forest University
Zenia is a rising Junior at Wake Forest University who is pursuing majors in Politics and International Affairs & Spanish as well as a minor in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, Zenia became interested in Latin American and Spanish Studies through her travels to Costa Rica and Spain. In the summer of 2019, she conducted research on international relations and Spanish domestic politics for La Asosiación Profesional de Sociología de Castilla y León. On campus, Zenia is active in organizations such as Project Pumpkin and HerCampus as well as a member of the Sigma Delta Pi Spanish Honor Society. She is looking forward to working with Latina Republic to amplify marginalized voices and learn more about issues affecting Latin America.