MASAYA, Nicaragua — There was something about the woman who turned up at St. Michael the Archangel church in this bustling market town one recent day. She was tall, about 40, nicely dressed in slacks and a blouse. Maybe an office worker, the Rev. Edwin Román figured.
Then she settled into the pew where he was hearing confessions, and leaned in.
“Where can I get bombs?” she whispered.
Román says he quickly realized what was going on.
“I can tell when people are infiltrators,” said the priest, a well-known supporter of Nicaragua’s pro-democracy movement. Spies for the government of President Daniel Ortega, he said, were trying to entrap him.
Ortega has responded to Nicaragua’s worst political unrest since the 1980s by banning protests and smothering dissent. As conflict still simmers, the Catholic Church, one of the country’s last venues for protest, finds itself besieged.
Ortega supporters try to infiltrate parishes. Security forces surround churches during Mass. Priests suffer harassment and death threats. Police ring the Jesuit university when students dare to wave Nicaraguan flags and chant anti-government slogans.
There are echoes of the 1980s, when Nicaragua’s pro-Marxist government clashed with conservative bishops in a Cold War standoff. As it was then, Ortega’s Sandinista party is in power. Now, though, the dispute is over democracy, at a time of rising populism and authoritarianism.
Ortega, 73, has accused church leaders of being “committed to the coup plotters,” as he calls the young activists who organized mass demonstrations last year
The clergy deny they’re trying to undermine Ortega. But as Nicaragua has become one of the most repressive countries in Latin America, the church has become a refuge for dissenters.
Threats against church leaders have become so intense that the Vatican recently called the outspoken auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, to Rome.
“There’s an attack on religious freedom like we’ve never seen in Nicaragua,” said Félix Maradiaga, a Harvard-trained political scientist and opposition activist. “And it’s occurring under the world’s nose.”
When the bullets started flying in Masaya, Román was in his bedroom, watching TV. He heard a pounding on his garden gate.
“A young person appeared asking, ‘Father, do you have gloves, alcohol, gauze?’ ” the 59-year-old priest recalled. “I looked around. The only gloves I had were oven mitts.”
It was a spring night in 2018. Masaya, about 14 miles from the capital, was once a Sandinista stronghold. Now it was at the heart of a national revolt. What had begun as protests against pension cuts had swelled into rallies against Ortega’s 11-year rule and his dismantling of democratic institutions.
Román started making calls. Soon the rectory at St. Michael’s became an informal clinic for wounded demonstrators.
“For me, it was a humanitarian service,” the priest said.
Throughout the country, priests and bishops found themselves on the front lines of the crisis. They rescued demonstrators who fled to churches as police and heavily armed paramilitary forces moved in. They counseled parents distraught over the arrests of their teenagers.
Ortega has a turbulent history with the church, widely influential in this majority-Catholic country.
In the 1980s, he defied its leadership, inviting leftist priests into his cabinet and encouraging the creation of a pro-government “popular church.” (That earned his government a public scolding from Pope John Paul II.) More recently, he tried to reconcile with the Catholic hierarchy, backing one of the strictest antiabortion laws in Latin America.
As Nicaragua’s political crisis intensified last year, Ortega asked the bishops to broker a national dialogue. There were few other institutions that could do it: Most opposition parties had been co-opted, or stripped of their legal status.
But the talks soon stalled, and the backlash was swift.
Ortega charged — without presenting evidence — that churches were being used “to store weapons, to store bombs.” As paramilitary forces and police dislodged protesters who had occupied college campuses and neighborhoods, churches were caught in the crossfire. Priests and bishops tried to give protesters sanctuary; pro-government mobs attacked them. At one point, Báez was knifed in the arm as he tried to defend young people in a church.
More than 300 people, most of them demonstrators, were killed, according to human rights groups. The Nicaraguan government claims the protesters are part of a coup attempt financed by the U.S. government.
Nicaraguan authorities have denied targeting priests. They did not respond to a request for an interview.
A year after the crackdown, the barricades are gone, but the death threats continue. Román says he’s followed by plainclothes security agents. He has been detained by police twice, for several hours each time. Officers have surrounded his church when he has celebrated Mass in remembrance of those killed or to commemorate the release of political prisoners. After the services, worshipers hold impromptu protests at the church entrance, waving the country’s blue-and-white flag — a symbol of the rebellion.
Inside his quiet, airy church, someone has placed a Nicaraguan flag alongside a statue of St. Michael. Blue-and-white ribbons dangle from a figure of the risen Christ.
“This is how people now protest,” said the priest. Anything more could land them in jail.
Security forces still generally refrain from entering Catholic Church property. That’s why a blonde 36-year-old woman traveled to Managua’s soaring modernistic cathedral on a recent sunny afternoon. She joined a handful of demonstrators outside, waving Nicaraguan flags and chanting anti-Ortega slogans.
“This is the only safe place we can come,” said the woman, who provided only her nickname, Chela.
But she gazed anxiously at the police special forces trucks ringing the fenced perimeter. “They’re on top of us. In our neighborhood, they’re watching us.”
In April, the cathedral lost its most powerful voice when Pope Francis recalled Báez to Rome indefinitely.
The bishop had become an unlikely face of the Nicaraguan opposition. A 61-year-old scholar with a receding hairline and a doctorate in theology from the Vatican’s Gregorian University, he was a hit with young people.
That was due, in part, to his human rights advocacy over a decade in Managua. But the cleric was also an ace at Twitter.
“Whenever an event happened, everyone wanted to hear a pronouncement from a bishop,” said the sociologist José Luis Rocha, a frequent contributor to the Jesuit publication Envío. “And out pops the tweet from Báez.”
While the Vatican did not explain Báez’s move, the bishop said in interviews that he had been the target of an assassination plot. In May, the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference said the clergy, and Báez in particular, had been subjected to “discredit and death threats.”
In recent months, the church has taken a lower profile. The bishops’ conference is no longer organizing the talks with the government, although the papal nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, is participating.
Maradiaga said some bishops were uneasy about the church assuming a prominent political role. And unlike in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II backed Nicaragua’s bishops amid a U.S.-funded insurgency, the current conflict has received little attention abroad.
“Priests opposing the regime don’t have the strong international support that existed before,” said Maradiaga, who heads the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policies, one of several civil-society groups that have been outlawed by the government.
The isolation is evident in the northern city of Esteli, where Monsignor Juan Abelardo Mata, the 73-year-old head of the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference, holes up in a church compound watched by five unarmed security guards. The longtime human rights advocate has been a prominent critic of the Sandinistas.
Mata and seven of his archdiocesan priests have received death threats, he said. At least four Nicaraguan priests have fled the country.
A year ago, when Mata was on a trip to Masaya, Sandinista supporters shot at his car and beat his driver, he said. Since then, he has avoided visiting parishes for patron saint days or confirmations.
“I don’t want bloodshed on my account,” he added. “People here are ready to give their lives for me.”
When he leaves the city, he goes undercover.
Under the glass of his dining room table, Mata keeps a picture of Óscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador who was gunned down in 1980 while celebrating Mass. Last year, Romero was canonized.
Mata said Nicaragua’s church would not be intimidated, even if a priest is killed.
“The church doesn’t die,” he said. “The church has watched as the caskets of its persecutors pass by.”
Ismael López Ocampo contributed to this report.