Demonstrators demand the ouster of President Daniel Ortega and the release of political prisoners in Managua, Nicaragua, on July 23, 2018. (Alfredo Zuniga/AP)

From the rectory where he lives in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, the Rev. Raul Zamora had been hearing gunfire from a distance for months. On July 13, the gunfire came to him as he sheltered dozens of student protesters inside his church.

He had made six trips to the front lines at the university where paramilitaries loyal to the government were firing on protesters, protected only by his clerical garb and a church flag that he carried, to bring out the wounded and other students.

Zamora ushered them to safety in the Church of the Divine Mercy. But it only attracted the well-armed paramilitaries to them for a siege that lasted well into the night. It ended only after two students were killed, and senior Catholic clergy negotiated the release of the surviving students.

“The government speaks about them as vandals, as criminals,” Zamora said Tuesday in an interview at the State Department, where he is attending an international conference aimed at advancing religious freedom, the first of its kind and a pet project of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“That’s like an excuse for exterminating them — I don’t believe in that. They’re students. They’re human lives. And I felt the need, and my faith also, to save them. Because even though my life was at risk, actually I felt at peace inside doing it. I felt that was the right thing to do.”

Nicaragua has been roiled by unrest since April, when President Daniel Ortega proposed reducing pensions. His plan provoked demonstrations that have mushroomed into a broader protest against Ortega, who is in his fourth term as president. Around 300 people have died amid the government’s heavy-handed repression of dissent.

But Ortega has rebuffed demands he and his wife, who is the country’s vice president, resign and call early elections. He has called the protesters terrorists, and some of the students with Zamora the night of the church siege have been arrested under a new anti-terrorism law, while others are missing, he said.

Many bishops and priests in the Catholic Church have gone to the streets with the protesters. Ortega has accused the church of stirring up the unrest, and churches and clergy around the country have been attacked even as the church has sought to act as a mediator.

“We’re not only with the protesters,” he added. “We’re with the whole people of Nicaragua. Not only the protesters were attacked, [but] also people who were walking by. Innocent people, who were carrying children, they were shot at. Anyone who was in the street, the police would pass and shoot at them. That means that the church has to be with those who suffered.”

The United States has imposed sanctions against Nicaraguan officials for human rights abuses as the situation has deteriorated. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert regularly speaks out against the violence convulsing the country, as she did again Tuesday.

“The United States government condemns the ongoing violence and intimidation by the Ortega-controlled armed groups in Nicaragua,” she said, noting the arrests of 700 opponents and the “cowardly” attacks on churches. “We join the international community in calling for early, free, fair and transparent elections and the protection of universal human rights in Nicaragua.”

Vice President Pence on Tuesday called on Ortega to step down.

“State-sponsored violence in Nicaragua is undeniable,” Pence tweeted. “Ortega’s propaganda fools no one and changes nothing. 350+ dead at the hands of the regime. The US calls on the Ortega government to end the violence NOW and hold early elections — the world is watching!”

Zamora said church mediation is the only feasible path to bring peace to the embattled nation. But he is skeptical.

“There’s no goodwill from the government’s part,” he said. “They see this as a threat. A democratic election is a threat, like an overthrow of the government.”

Ortega said recently that the crisis has passed and that life is returning to normal. But few share that assessment.

“What we’re talking about is a major persecution that’s beginning right now,” Zamora said, noting that Ortega has branded church leaders as criminals. “We know what’s coming.”