Pope calls for dialogue as Nicaragua violence escalates

by Joshua Howat BERGER
A demonstrator fires a homemade mortar against riot police during protests in Masaya near Managua on June 2, 2018

Pope Francis called Sunday for dialogue in Nicaragua after new clashes killed at least seven people, the latest bloodshed in weeks of anti-government protests that have left more than 100 dead.

The Church has tried to mediate the crisis in the Central American country, but called off peace talks with President Daniel Ortega's government last week after a march led by victims' mothers was met with gunfire, killing at least 16 people.

Violence erupted again Saturday, as protesters fired homemade mortars to fend off police crackdowns in the cities of Masaya and Tipitapa, both near the capital Managua.

The new unrest left at least seven people dead, including a US citizen reportedly killed by a pro-government mob in a separate incident in Managua, according to rights groups.

"I am united with my brother bishops in Nicaragua and their grief over violence committed by armed groups," the pope said at the Vatican.

"The Church is always in favor of dialogue, but for that it requires an active commitment to respect freedom and, above all, life."

At Mass in Managua's Metropolitan Cathedral, Father Luis Herrera said he was praying for the victims of "police repression."

The violence has now claimed 110 lives since it erupted on April 18, according to the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights.

The government said in a statement it was "absolutely willing to continue working for dialogue, justice and democracy."

- Church caught in crossfire -

The Nicaraguan Bishops' Conference aborted its attempt to mediate the conflict after the deadly crackdown on Wednesday's Mother's Day march, saying dialogue was impossible as long as "the people continue to be repressed and killed" by "groups close to the government."

The Catholic Church has been increasingly caught up in the conflict.

On Saturday, Silvio Jose Baez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, warned residents of flashpoint city Masaya to stay indoors over reports of pro-government snipers shooting people in the street.

A church in central Masaya later opened its doors to give refuge and medical care to 21 residents who had been detained and reportedly abused by police.

The Church and the Nicaraguan Association for the Protection of Human Rights (ANPDH) obtained the release of 11 more detainees Sunday. Most had clearly been beaten.

"I'm just a paramedic," said one young woman who declined to give her name, adding that she had been arbitrarily arrested and beaten in Masaya.

"They beat my son all over, on his stomach, on his head," said a sobbing Antonia Gonzalez, whose 25-year-old son Luis was one of those detained, on what his family called fabricated looting charges.

- Cardinal emeritus dies -

Ortega, who has dominated Nicaraguan politics for the past four decades, had been seen as close to the Church in recent years.

One of his key allies, cardinal emeritus Miguel Obando, died Sunday at age 92.

Obando and Ortega had a love-hate relationship stretching back to the 1970s.

Obando, like the president, was a sharp critic of dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was ousted by Ortega's Sandinista guerrilla army in 1979.

He later turned his criticism on the newly installed Sandinista junta led by Ortega, criticizing its communist ideology, alleged human rights violations and vision of a "people's church" based on leftist liberation theology.

But as Ortega -- who lost the presidency in a 1990 election -- charted his eventual return to power in 2007, he courted the cardinal's favor with a mix of progressive social policy and support for a total abortion ban.

Obando even presided over Ortega's 2005 wedding to his current vice president, Rosario Murillo.

- Former bastion -

But the Catholic Church has distanced itself from Ortega over the crackdown.

The church in Masaya has sheltered opposition supporters from attacks by riot police and pro-government paramilitaries, and church bells are the warning signal residents use when security forces arrive.

Once a Sandinista bastion, the city of just over 100,000 people looked like a war zone Sunday.

Residents have put up barricades to keep out riot police and protect themselves from what they say are police and paramilitary snipers.

Ortega, whose third consecutive term is due to end in 2022, denies his forces are killing protesters. His government accuses "right-wing groups" of conspiring to "terrorize" the country.

A demonstrator fires a homemade mortar against riot police during protests in the Nicaraguan city of Masaya