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Catholic Church backed violent coup attempt in Nicaragua, meddles in politics

Foreign media outlets falsely accuse Nicaragua’s Sandinista government of repressing the Catholic Church, while ignoring its role in supporting a violent coup attempt in 2018 and sponsoring extremist opposition groups.

Catholic church Nicaragua coup

A deluge of misleading stories claiming that the Nicaraguan government has repressed the Catholic Church have appeared in international media, but not one has accurately explained what is happening.

In the article below, Becca Renk, who has lived and worked in sustainable community development in Nicaragua since 2001, explains the country’s complex relationship with the Catholic Church and shows how Western media reporting is extremely inaccurate.

Credit: Casa Benjamín Linder

(Se puede leer este artículo en español aquí.)

Background – Just how far back does this go?

Colonization: The Catholic Church first came to Nicaragua with the Spanish colonizers and, as elsewhere in the world, the hierarchy and much of the clergy facilitated colonial conquest through conversion.

In Nicaragua, the indigenous population was utterly decimated: most of the population was killed, died of disease, or were abducted and sold into slavery.

With the notable exceptions of some individual priests like Antonio Valdivieso, the Church was not only complicit but actively participated in the horrors of colonization.

Insurrection: Post independence, the Church hierarchy and Nicaragua’s wealthy elite ran the country together. For generations, each powerful family had a son who became a priest.

In the 20th century, the Catholic hierarchy supported the bloody Somoza dictatorship during the almost 45 years of their rule, and only at the very end did some in the hierarchy support the people’s liberation.

Revolution: Unlike in Cuba, the Nicaraguan revolution was never secular – in fact, the Sandinista Revolution was so influenced by liberation theology that in the 1980s there was a popular saying was, “Between Christianity and revolution there is no contradiction.”

There were priests in the Sandinista government – several ministers – but they were not the priests of the Church hierarchy; they were working to improve the lives of the poor majority.

The Catholic hierarchy was openly opposed to the Sandinista Revolution. Pope John Paul II came to Nicaragua and chastised the priests in government, and the Vatican later censored them.

Government of Reconciliation and National Unity

When the Sandinista Front party came back into power in 2007, it formed the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity (GRUN). In an attempt to unite the country and prevent new conflict, the new government sought not only to work with former enemies from the war – the Contra’s political wing joined the Sandinista alliance and nominated the vice president for that term from within their ranks – but also included the Church, big business, and trade unions in the planning and management of government programs. The Church was given a place at the governing table.

But big business and the Catholic Church effectively ended that model when they conspired to overthrow the elected government in 2018, and used their role in society to try to turn the people against the government.

2018 coup attempt

In April 2018, protests began that were ostensibly against proposed reforms to the social security system. It quickly became obvious, however, that the protests were about something else: an attempt to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.

Armed opposition groups set up hundreds of roadblocks which paralyzed the country and became epicenters of violence. The roadblocks lasted for nearly three months. Some 253 people were killed, and many more injured.

While opposition sources blamed the government for nearly all deaths, a careful study by the Nicaraguan Truth, Justice and Peace Commission showed otherwise.

Journalists’ investigations have shown that the U.S. government was funding the violence through USAID, NED, and IRI – all “soft arms” of the CIA.

Although the U.S. was funding the attempted ousting of Nicaragua’s democratically elected Sandinista government, the Catholic Church hierarchy in Nicaragua was instigating it.

Catholic bishops protest Nicaragua

Catholic bishops join a right-wing anti-government protest in Nicaragua during the violent coup attempt in 2018

In this article, I documented first-hand accounts of priests initiating violence, including in neighborhoods of Ciudad Sandino.

While the Bishop’s conference was supposedly “mediating” a national dialogue, its own priests were calling for violence. At these “roadblocks of death,” as they came to be known, Sandinista supporters were identified, beaten, raped, tortured and murdered – with priests watching and sometimes participating in the violence.

Although hundreds were arrested and convicted of violent crimes in 2018, opposition demanded the release of what they called “political prisoners.”

In the interests of peace and reconciliation, the Nicaraguan government declared a general amnesty and freed everyone who had been charged in conjunction the attempted coup, including known murderers, on the condition that they not reoffend.


The hierarchy’s participation in the failed coup attempt in 2018 has had consequences for the Catholic Church: the Nicaraguan government has reduced by half its financial support for cathedrals, churches and maintenance of the Bishops’ Conference facilities.

But the Church has also lost its people. I have talked to many Catholics who no longer go to mass because their priests continue to promote violence and seek political ends from the pulpit.

These people have not lost their faith – they continue to pray at home and take part in religious celebrations outside the Church – but they no longer attend mass.

This sentiment is widespread. Recent polls by respected firm M&R Consultores show that only 37% of Nicaraguans today identify as Catholics, as opposed to 50% in 2014.

catolicos religion Nicaragua grafico

The decline of Catholicism in Nicaragua over time (Source: M&R Consultores)

Recent events

So what is going on now that has caused so many inaccurate headlines? The first week of August, Nicaraguan authorities dismantled the network of communication outlets (five radio stations and a local television channel) owned by Rolando Álvarez. Álvarez is bishop of Estelí and Matagalpa, but he is also a political actor, and was one of the leaders involved in the violent coup attempt in 2018.

Alvarez’s discourse has created a climate of confrontation, in an attempt to destabilize Nicaragua’s government in the run-up to November’s municipal elections.

Alvarez’s private media outlets were closed because they are alleged to have been used to launder money to pay for street violence to feed destabilization attempts.

Following the closure of his media outlets, Alvarez was placed under house arrest while he is under investigation for a series of crimes.

Even following his arrest, however, Alvarez continued to foment violence which threatened the safety of the population of Matagalpa.

In August he was moved to house arrest in Managua, where he will remain while he is being investigated. He is receiving visits from his family and from the cardinal, with whom he has spoken at length.

Rolando Alvarez Nicaragua golpe de estado

Rolando Álvarez

Other priests arrested

Alvarez isn’t the only priest to be arrested in Nicaragua in recent months. Nicaraguan authorities have arrested, tried, and convicted a priest who raped a 12-year-old girl and another who beat his partner. (The Nicaraguan public didn’t blink an eye at the fact that the priest had a partner, but they were outraged that he beat her.)

Interestingly, we have not seen international media using the cases of the rapist and wife-beating priests of Nicaragua to claim religious persecution the way that they are for Alvarez, but all three are cases of Nicaraguan authorities holding Catholic priests accountable for their individual actions, just as they would anyone else.

Is there religious persecution in Nicaragua?

Religious persecution is defined as societal or intuitional attacks on people specifically for their religious beliefs. What we have seen in Nicaragua’s recent events is the investigation and arrest of individuals who have broken the law, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Religious persecution can also be defined as attacks on religious institutions, of which the international press also accuses the Nicaraguan government. Few concrete examples are given – most are alleged defacements of churches that cannot be attributed to the government or its institutions.

The most often cited incident is a fire in July 2020 in the Managua cathedral, which destroyed the image of the blood of Christ. Church authorities claim it was caused by a firebomb attack on the Cathedral. In their investigation, however, the Nicaraguan police and the fire department found no evidence of a firebomb, and concluded that the fire was caused by a spray bottle of alcohol used for sanitizing hands, which was left too close to an open flame in the poorly ventilated chapel.

Eyewitnesses saw no suspicious activity. There were only two people in the cathedral at the time of the fire.

Regardless of the results of the investigation, the Church hierarchy maintains their claim of “persecution” and has left the chapel as it was following the fire, encouraging visitors to pray to the charred crucifix.

Not only is there no religious persecution in Nicaragua, but there is an atmosphere of thriving religious expression.

For proof of this, one just had to look out a window in Nicaragua this August. August is patron saint festival season in this country.

While international media has been printing tales of religious persecution, dozens of Nicaraguan cities and towns were busy celebrating their Catholic saints in festivals supported economically and logistically by municipal governments.

Our own village celebrated the Virgin of the Nancite. And in Ciudad Sandino we celebrated Little Santo Domingo.

Nicaragua Catholics celebration virgin

Nicaraguan Catholics celebrate the virgin of the Nancite, in the community of Cuajachillo No. 2, in Ciudad Sandino, in August 2022

The largest celebration of all was tens of thousands of people who walked and danced freely through Managua’s streets on two separate public holidays dedicated to Santo Domingo.

In Nicaragua, the Church hierarchy may be sequestered inside walls, but the church of the people is in the street, joyfully celebrating its faith.



  1. Sam Owen

    2022-09-02 at 21:16

    While it’s sad that the church hierarchy is so corrupt, it’s refreshing to see a people so enthusiastically living the faith, especially as part of a left-wing movement (which is the most true to Jesus). Too bad Christian Socialism is all but extinguished in America.

  2. RR

    2022-09-16 at 05:45

    Pius was correct when he asserted ‘No one can be at the same time a sincere Catholic and a Socialist properly so- called.’

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