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In the poor Nicaraguan village of Cuapa, located almost in the center of the country, lived, not so long ago, a sacristan named Bernardo. Bernardo, like all Roman Catholic sacristans, was in charge of the sacred vessels and vestments of his church. One night in 1981, Bernardo went into the sanctuary and saw a light radiating from the statue of the Virgin. But when Bernardo turned on the electric light it disappeared.1
Three weeks later, in the morning, as Bernardo was fishing in the river, the landscape changed. The sun was in eclipse, he heard birdsong, leaves rustling, and he saw flashes of lightning. A cloud on which a beautiful, barefoot young woman was standing descended to earth. She had chestnut hair, honey-colored eyes, Bernardo said, and was wrapped in a cape embroidered with jewels. She had a crown of stars on her head.2
"My name is Mary," the young woman said, the Mother of God. The vision appeared to Bernardo many times. The, young woman told him that the Sandinistas were "atheists, Communists" and they were the reason she had chosen to appear in Nicaragua. She also said, Bernardo reported, that if his country did not change, it would continue to suffer and would hasten the coming of the Third World War.3
Monsignor Vega, the Bishop of Juigalpa, authorized Bernardo to reveal the miracle, and the Virgin's visits became well-known throughout the country.4
One day Bernardo had visitors; three government officials. They offered him a farm with good land and cows - absolutely free - if only he would say the Virgin was a Sandinista. When Bernardo said he could only tell the truth, the officials offered a sensible compromise. "All he had to do was to stop saying she was anti-Sandinista." Bernardo refused.5
Campaigns were then conducted against him in the government's newspapers, Barricada and Nuevo Diario, and on state-owned television. "He was called insane, hysterical, delusional. One morning at dawn, the police broke into his house and tried to kidnap him." The church, fearing for his safety, took him to a,seminary in Managua, where he takes care of the garden.6
This, then, is the ultimate outcome of liberation theology in Nicaragua. When Nicaragua's Sandinista government is able to use religion for its own ends - as it did before it successfully overthrew former dictator Anastasia Somoza - it does so. When the Sandinistas can use Christians and the Christian church for propaganda purposes, they do so. When they can do neither, they attack.
The nine-member junta has been so successful with the first two tactics since former dictator Anastasio Somoza was deposed in 1979 that Nicaragua has become "the magnet for liberation theologians, socialist Catholics, radical theologians, apocalyptic Prophets and Marxist-Leninist priests from all over the world."7 It is also the sacred pilgrimage for thousands of American Christians - most of whom return reporting that Nicaragua's government is dedicated to nothing but the good of its people; that it is demonstratively Christianity in action.
Meanwhile, bureaucracies and leadership of the mainline church and the National Council of Churches have worked steadily to convince Congress to end funding for the anti-Sandinista guerrillas.
They have achieved partial success, as of 1986, in that funding for the anti-Sandinistas is extremely controversial among Christians (as well as other Americans). Many also believe American foreign policy - at least regarding Central America - is as evil as the Soviets'. In helping shape these opinions, the church has harmed its country's interests and has helped to perpetuate a regime that is actively persecuting Christians in Central America.
Should the Sandinistas be replaced by a government of another ideological stripe - by the anti-Sandinista guerrillas or some sort of democratic coalition - it would make no difference to this or the following chapter. The point is not whether the Sandinistas are destined to rule forever. This chapter examines the FSLN's (Sandinista Front for National Liberation) hostility to Christianity and attempts to prove that the American mainline church has once again indulged itself in illusions about a Marxist-Leninist regime.
Due to limited space, only Sandinista aggression against Chlistianity will be examined. However, the Sandinista war on the Indians of Nicaragua provides an excellent forum to examine both the Sandinistas' real character and their hostility to Christianity. It is a story covering eight years of murder, racial prejudice, and religious persecution. Most Americans are unaware of the story because the Sandinistas have diligently worked to camouflage their actions, and because the Miskitos are one of the world's little-known peoples. The Miskitos
do, however, have a long history and share a common heritage with American Christians.
About one hundred and sixty thousand Miskito, Sumo, and Rama Indians have lived for centuries on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua in two hundred and fifty-six villages. About 55 percent are Moravian Christians and the rest Roman Catholic. Many of them have adopted European surnames as a result of missionary work done among their tribe.
The Miskitos were discovered by Christopher Columbus on his fourth voyage. It was once a powerful, rich tribe until ravaged by sixteenth-century slave traders. It was not destroyed, however, and Europeans were welcomed to the Atlantic Coast because they brought mutually profitable trade. The Indians speak English (as well as their native language) because Great Britain was highly visible as a trading presence for two hundred years. The Indians have been historically isolated from Spanish-speaking Nicaragua, although Spain and later Nicaraguan governments tried many times to colonize the area.8
Miskitos have always lived communally, feeding themselves by farming, hunting, and fishing. They elect elders, through local councils, to govern. Traditionally, they have enjoyed the right to self-government, to use tax money through their political structure, to speak their own language and practice their own religion, to own their own lands, and have possessed total exemption from military service. Nicaraguan governments tried to change these rules occasionally, but always retreated in the face of Indian defiance.9
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Oppression Of Indians
The Sandinistas were apparently determined to do what no Nicaraguan government had succeeded in doing before: controlling the Indians. Immediately after the revolution the Sandinistas ordered that Sandinista Defense Committees be established in the villages and attempted to replace the council of elders with Sandinista organizations."10 They seized control of the economic infrastructure of the Caribbean coast in 1980 and 1981, including the Indians' food cooperatives, fishing fleets and the transportation systems to remote areas.
The defense committees (already established elsewhere in Nicaragua) are officially charged with spying on their neighbors and in organizing - and enforcing - Sandinista activities and policies. Weapons used in this enforcement are ration cards needed to buy food and Official documents needed for internal travel. Resentment was intensitied when the Sandinistas expropriated all Indian land and resources in 1980 and 1981, including lucrative lumbering areas.11 When food became scarce the Indian organization which was the traditional authority for the tribes (The Alliance for the Development of the Miskitos and Sumo people) called a strike. The government violently suppressed the demonstrators.12
Indian leaders were then arrested, including Lester Athers, an Alliance leader whom the Sandinista government subsequently murdered in October 1979.13 Education was next. The Sandinistas distributed atheist tracts to the population and forced Marxist indoctrination on the school system. Most of the instructors were Cuban. They also forced the other teachers to teach in Spanish.14
After months of demonstrations against the government and active resistance by sixty-five Indian warriors who were called the "Tropa Cruce" (Crucifix Troop), the regime in 1982 began a massive "resettlement program," beginning with ten thousand Miskitos and Sumos who lived on the Rio Coco.15
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Indian Uprising And Concentration Camps
By 1985 the regime had herded approximately eighteen thousand Indians into thirteen concentration camps, only six of which they acknowledged. They now use their prisoners as slave labor on coffee plantations in Jinotega and Matagalpa.16 Refugees to Honduras have confirmed this report. They have also charged that the camps are holding-pens for Indians forced to work as slave laborers on the state's sugar and palm oil plantations.17
Thousands more have fled to Honduras and Costa Rica as refugees, and another three thousand to six thousand Indian warriors are fighting the Sandinista government. They call their war "Indian aiklabanka," or Indian war. The Indian resistance has coalesced in the MISURASATA and MISURA organizations. The former, an acronym which stands for the first syllables of Miskito, Sumo, Rama, and Sandinista, was a member of the anti-Sandinista organization of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance. MISURA is partially coordinated with the Nicaraguan Democratic Force, the largest anti-Sandinista guerrilla army."18
Indian warriors have had hand-to-hand battles with Sandinista forces, many of which they have won. The government has retaliated by bombing and strafing villages in an attempt to destroy the warrior's access to tribal food and help. Little information on this war has reached the outside world because Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast has been closed to most civilians since 1982.19
In November 1982, the MISURASATA Council of Ancients (elders) produced a document which charges that the FSLN, as a part of the "relocations," had destroyed forty-nine communities, burned more than four thousand homes, cut down the fruit trees, shot all the live,stock, and sent the people on a forced march to the camps which lasted from eleven to fifteen days.20
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Murders And Atrocities
"During the forced march . . . the invalids, lame, blind and paralyzed persons were gathered together in the village of Tulinbila, they were put inside the church and they were burned - 13 persons thus died," the ancients charged."21
According to the testimony, villages continued to be burned thereafter and in April Rev. Abel Flores and thirteen deacons were arrested and taken away by helicopter. Women and girls as young as twelve were raped (some in churches), whole groups of people were machinegunned to death, men were tortured, people were buried alive, people were prevented from attending church, and services were forbidden.22
The testimony of the elders regarding the people who were buried alive was inadvertently confirmed by a leader of the Indian resistance. He mentioned the incident in an American publication in 1982. The event happened in Leimus, he said, in December 1981. About thirty-five people were buried alive, some of whom were rescued by their relatives after the Sandinistas left the village.23
In publications from the council, the elders charged that men had even been murdered on the "patios" of their churches; that people mysteriously disappeared; that people were dragged from church and shot immediately outside; that it was forbidden to fish; that children starved to death and died of dehydration on the forced marches; and that Moravian pastors were ordered to submit their sermons before they were delivered.24
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Personal testimonies to these atrocities are mind-numbing. Always beginning "I denounce," the witnesses explain in calm language atrocities most humans can barely comprehend. Typical is Emilia Smith's testimony. He says the Sandinistas gathered about one thousand and thirty people from his village, Asang, on December 27, 1981 and forced them to leave. They were marched to San Carlos, thirty kilometers downriver. When they reached their destination eight soldiers took Smith, his brother Ernesto Smith, and friend Benigno Valle to "Ispail" beach.25
". . .then we realized that they had taken us there to assassinate us," Smith wrote. "There, while four guarded us, four others went down to the beach with my brother Ernesto Smith, they tied his hands and feet with black nylon rope, then made a bonfire and began to burn
his feet, hands, chest and penis, asking that he tell them if (he) had contact with the counter-revolutionaries. When my brother denied this, they said: 'Son of a bitch, you are a counter-revolutionary and today we are going to kill you, your brother and the other man also.' On seeing him tortured, I wished to help him and they hit me with their rifle butts.26
"Later they cut off both his feet with a new machete, my brother cried and asked them not to torture him, that he was innocent but that they should know that God exists and that one day He would make justice for all.27
"Later they cut his neck as if he were a pig, and once dead, they shoveled a grave in the sand, put his body in it with the machete on top of my brother's chest. . . . This occurred January, 1982.28
"They took Benigno Valle and myself to Asan, and made us sleep in the village school, and on January 21, 1982 at 4 a.m. when our guards were careless, we got out of the school and crossed the river swimming. Thus we suffered and thus they killed my brother Ernesto Smith, 50 years old, married, with 10 children that today are left forsaken."29
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Bernard Nietschmann, professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley and author of books on the Miskitos (which he has researched for eighteen years), corroborated the Indian's testimony before the Organization of American States in October 1983.
Nietschmann traveled to Costa Rica, Honduras, and Nicaragua in 1983 to interview Miskito, Sumo, and Rama Indians about their difficulties. He told the OAS that he had used the standard systematic techniques of formal interviews, informal discussions, crosschecking, corroboration and obtaining multiple confirmations to establish validity and reliability of the information. A tape recording, film, and photographic record was made.
Nietschmann found, to his horror, that the Sandinistas had done everything that the Council of Ancients claimed they had. Plus, Indians were forbidden to travel and were denied access to basic food stores. There was also a complete absence of any medicine, health care, or educational service in the camps; most of their goods had beef' stolen, and last, but not least, they were denied their right to worship God.
"For example, it was reported to me," Nietschmann testified, "by several firsthand sources that one man was nailed through his hands and ankles to a wall and told he would remain there until he either confessed to being a 'contra' or died. He died. . . . I was shown scars
from what they said were bayonet wounds (a man of 60 years), fingernails pulled out (a man of 48 years), deep scars under fingernails from trails driven in (a man of 52 years). Several men reported that they had been held under water for long periods to extract confessions. Another man had been tied by his feet and hung upside down and beaten repeatedly with sticks. His body still showed evidence of bruises and his shoulders were deformed."30
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Rape And Religious Persecution
"Rape by Sandinista soldiers of Miskito girls and women has been common. In one village, for example, six women between the ages of 15 and 42 were raped by the occupying Sandinista soldiers. Two were gang-raped. . . . Only in those villages now under the protection of Miskito warriors are religious services being held. . . . And even in this large zone many villages cannot hold church services because their religious leaders are in jail or are in exile in Honduras or Costa Rica.31
"During the Sandinista military occupation villages or churches have commonly been used as jails, to detain men and women accused or suspected of counter-revolutionary activities. Churches have been used to house Sandinista soldiers, Bibles and hymn books have been destroyed. Villagers accuse the Sandinista soldiers of defecating and urinating in the churches. . . . I heard reports of churches that had been burned elsewhere in Indian communities. . . . 32
"The Miskitos are a very religious people, and they have suffered greatly from the denial of their freedom of religion. In almost all of my discussions with hundreds of Miskito men and women, this was a principal grievance they reported to me."33
Accusing the Moravian church of being the center of Indian resistance,34 the regime closed over fifty Moravian churches, and jailed and killed pastors. The Moravian Social Action Committee was closed, and Moravian pastors have been jailed in an attempt to force them to become informers on fellow clerics.35 The Moravian Biblical Institute (which trained lay pastors) was forcibly closed.36
The Sandinistas claim they released the Indians whom they had held captive and allowed them to return to their villages. This is untrue. The Sandinistas released approximately nine thousand Indians in mid-1985, in return for a ceasefire with some Indian warriors. There are still approximately nine thousand to fifteen thousand Indians left in concentration camps. Worse, the Sandinistas soon violated the ceasefire. Indian fighters who had not seen their families for more than three Years crossed the river from Honduras to visit. Knowing that the Indian resistance was low on ammunition, the Sandinistas attacked the villages with mortar fire and armor-backed troop invasions. This bappened March 25, 1986. About nine thousand Indians subsequently fled to Honduras. These were the same Indians which had been
released from the camps. The Sandinistas have also made it a practice to bomb villages in general (the few which still have inhabitants), a practice which has been reported by The New York Times.37
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Sandinistas Persecute The Catholic Church
Obviously not satisfied in just attempting to destroy the Indians' worship of God, the Sandinistas have made serious attempts to destroy traditional Christianity in the rest of Nicaragua as well. The beginning salvo in this campaign was the 1980 announcement that Christians were not permitted to evangelize within the Sandinista organization.38
About a year later the regime announced that the weekly televised Masses would be rotated among Catholic priests. Customarily Cardinal Obando y Bravo (then archbishop) or his designated stand-in celebrated this Mass. The Cardinal, believing that pro-Sandinista priests would be chosen, refused to cooperate. The televised masses were cancelled. Catholic Radio then felt under heavy daily censorship and has now been taken off the air; issues of Iglesia, the church newspaper, have been confiscated and its press and printing equipment have been seized as well. Open air Masses have also been forbidden, the Catholic social welfare office has been closed, and the Sandinistas have prevented the church from establishing a human rights office. They have also begun taking seminarians out of school and forcing them to join the army.39
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The "Popular Church"
Not content to merely silence the church, the Sandinistas have made a concerted effort to separate the Catholic grass-roots from the influence of the Catholic hierarchy by creating an "Iglesia Popular," or Popular Church. It is composed of about twenty priests out of approximately three hundred and sixty now in Nicaragua.40
Priests from the Popular Church base their beliefs on liberation theology. Some lead the basic Christian communities which are centered around liberation theology, and some work for the liberation theology research and propaganda centers (the Centro Antonio Valdivieso, CEPAD, and the Instituto Historico Centroamericano). (More on these organizations in the next chapter.)41
The basic Christian communities are neighborhood groups of Catholics which meet for prayer and study. The groups were originally organized by practitioners of liberation theology - the goal of most of the communities, therefore, is social and political reform based on Marx's concept of class conflict. The radical groups (there are conservative basic communities which do not follow liberation theology) are greatly outnumbered in Nicaragua by the more traditional Catholics.
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The Research Centers
The research and propaganda centers traditionally claimed that Marxism and Christianity are "compatible" because they both provide an option for the poor. After they gained access to Sandinista state media, however, they began to claim only Marxists could be good Christians. They now declare that to be a Christian means giving "unconditional support" to the revolution.42
Abundant international aid supports this apostasy. Most of these centers, however, are financially supported by the American church; through the years, the United Methodists had given (as of Summer 1985) about $100,000, the National Council of Churches had contributed $365,329, the Presbyterians $100,000, and the World Council of Churches had donated approximately $176,000.43
The centers have full-time employees, both theologians and laity, and recording and printing facilities. It is evident that they have full government backing because they have exclusive access to the state's communications network.44
Having access to the state network is important because it runs 100 percent of the television channels, 90 percent of the radio stations, and two of the three newspapers.45 (The third newspaper, La Prensa, is opposed to the regime. It is so heavily censored, however, that it has sometimes been unable to publish at all for lack of material.) Unlike the centers based on liberation theology, the Catholic Church is forbidden from receiving funds or contributions from abroad.46
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Molina Hosts The Liberation Theology Show
Santa Maria de Los Angeles, a "Popular Church" staffed by Franciscan Uriel Molina (who presided over the Mass which memorialized Colombia's M-19 guerrillas), has few traditional Catholic statues. It is festooned instead with "huge revolutionary murals in which Christ is dressed as a Nicaraguan peasant and villainous Yankee imperialists and well-fed soldiers shoot young people carrying Sandinista flags. The Peasant Mass, (used at the church) by composer Carlos Mejia Godoy, is punctuated by revolutionary songs. . . . "47
Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian novelist, attended a service at Santa Maria. At least half those attending, Llosa reported, were North American visitors. Molina's sermon dealt with the "process of revolutionary social change which Christians should experience through their faith." When it was time for the embrace of peace, a feature of most Catholic services, the North Americans rushed to Interior Minister (and head of State Securitv Tomás Borgé - who was attending with Llosa - and asked for his autograph.48
At most services, other visitors have revealed, Molina ran quickly through his homily and Bible lesson. Then he took off his robe to "reveal a polyester-blend leisure suit" and came down from the altar with a small microphone (like a "talk-show host") and encouraged the audience to expound on political issues. The chosen participants, of course, always spoke on themes dear to the hearts of the Sandinista government.49
Molina has a history of close cooperation with the Sandinistas, including one instance in which his students (before Somoza's fall) left their studies to join the guerrillas. Some of the students now hold important positions in the government. One is now a member of the National Directorate and one is chief of staff in the army.50
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The Iglesia Popular has so little support from Nicaraguans that the services, as Liosa saw, are filled mostly with foreign Sandinista sympathizers. The lack of support for the Popular Church in Nicaragua also forces the regime to recruit people involved in the defense committees for use as "las turbas divines," or divine mobs. These mobs are ostensibly indignant members of the Popular Church, and they are used to attack traditional Catholic churches and the Catholic hierarchy. This is done at the direction of Nicaraguan State Security (secret police).51 The attacks are useful for propaganda against the hierarchy (it proves how allegedly unpopular the Catholic hierarchy is among the people) and for purposes of intimidation.
Despite the name, members of these mobs are less than divine. Some mob members have fought with the Marxist guerrillas in El Salvador,52 and most of them appear at demonstrations carrying clubs.
Father Mario Madrid, a Catholic priest expelled from the country in 1984, told Policy Forum that people in his Managua parish had been forced to join the turbas. Many of the people who had no houses were allowed to build "shanties" in empty lots. After building the houses, however, they were forced to participate in "every single political demonstration of the Sandinista front." When the Pope arrived, Madrid said, the coerced parishioners were forced to go to his Mass with their Sandinista Defense Committees and demonstrate against John Paul.53
Exiled Sandinista dissident Humberto Belli attended Mass at a small church at the university three times a week before he left the country and consequently knew all the parishioners. After one service, he remembers, about eight "revolutionary Christians" entered the chapel to stage a one-week sit-in as a protest against Cardinal Obando. No one belonging to the church knew them.54
Miguel Bolaños-Hunter, a former Sandinista field commander and member of Nicaraguan State Security, subsequently confirmed Belli's comments in an interview with the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy. Bolaños said when the Cardinal tried to transfer a "progressive" priest to another position the Sandinistas placed turbas around the church. In that particular parish there were not enough Sandinista sympathizers to create a mob, so the regime brought in Defense Committee members from other neighborhoods who then pretended to be from the parish they were invading.55
"I knew a couple of the officers involved who were in charge of another area on the other side of the city," Bolaños said. "I told them, 'I saw you on T.V. What were you doing over there? It's not your sector.' They said, 'Well, you know, I had to bring some people from my sector to make this demonstration bigger.'56
"When Monsignor Obando refused to talk to the mob, they bolted and shut the doors of the church, and occupied the church. They slept in the church and did various things that profaned the building. When Monsignor Obando found out, he sent Bishop Bosco Vivas to recover the tabernacle from the altar. When Bosco Vivas arrived, the mob beat him and knocked him to the ground."57
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Three Days In October
The regime's real feelings about the Roman Catholic Church became most apparent when its actions, during three days in October 1983, are examined:
- October 29 - mobs began to demonstrate at twenty-two churches in Managua and some outside the city. They interrupted Masses, chanted at churchgoers, and threatened priests;58
- October 30 - a mob gathered at Saint Jude church in Managua. The mob was acting against a church-planned demonstration against the new draft law, according to the progovernment press. The mob interrupted Mass and struck Father Silvio Fionseca. The mob refused to allow Monsignor Bosco Vivas to enter the area. A second mob, acting on the same day, refused to allow the church to hold a bazaar;59
- October 30 - Catholic leadership decided to cancel Masses for the day, but were not able to contact all priests. A mob armed with clubs subsequently interrupted Mass at San Francisco church in the Bolonia area, broke windows, and vandalized cars. That night a mob gathered in front of the Santa Maria church in the San Juan neighborhood and another burned a tire on the front steps of Santa Carmen church;60
- October 31 - Two foreign priests, Luis Corral Prieto and Jose Maria Pacheco, had their residencies revoked. They were, respectively, the director and assistant director of Salesian School in Managua. The government then announced the arrest of one Father Antonio for preaching against the draft and allegedly advocating counter-revolutionary activities.61
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Accusing priests of various crimes is a favorite Sandinista activity. Father Luis Amado Peña was arrested by the Sandinistas in 1983 and accused of transporting explosives. Peña denied the whole accusation. He claimed he had merely been taking a package to a car when he was arrested. He said he had delivered the package as a favor for an acquaintance. The government never explained how State Security nabbed Peña at the exact moment he was in possession of the alleged explosives or why they were accompanied by state television crews.
Church authorities then hired international lawyer Roger Guevara Meña for Peña's defense, only to have the Sandinistas arrest him. Cubans interrogated Meña and then placed him in total solitary confinement. He was placed in his cell without most of his clothes. The cell had no toilet, and he was fed only rice, moldy cheese, and stale bread for ten days. He was finally taken from his cell, given a shave, and put into the sun for two hours to make him presentable to the world. State Security told him they hoped he had "learned something" from his lesson.62
Father Peña later said he pardoned "those who participated in this trap."63 Presumably he also forgives approximately one thousand members of the mob who broke up Mass at his church (Church of the Holy Ghost) on June 21, 1984, shouting "Paredon!" - spanish for "to the firing squad."64
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Soon after the Peña incident, in July of 1984, the government exiled ten priests.* The regime claimed they were involved in subversive political action because they had participated in an antigovernment demonstration led by Cardinal Obando y Bravo. That demonstration had been called to support Peña. The priests were also accused Of using their pastoral ministry to preach against the revolution and promote opposition.
*Since this book was completed, Bishop Vega and Monsignor Carballo have been exiled from Nicaragua. They were accused of seditious activities.
The Rev. Santiago Anitua was the only ordained priest for a flock of about fifty thousand when he was expelled. He later said he did not participate in the demonstration. The reason he was expelled, he said, was because he was "faithful to the bishops."65
Other reasons, he said, had to do with the nature of his work. He and all of the other expelled priests were working on areas the Sandinistas considered "key and sensitive," primarily youth work and work with urban workers and peasants. The regime has made a concerted effort to win Nicaragua's children, using youth organizations and indoctrination in the schools.66
Several of the expelled priests had been stationed in barrios which were famous because they had been some of the first to rise against Somoza - the barrios Orientales and the Indian Monimbo. Other priests were organizers of strong grass-roots Catholic organizations such as the Cursillos and the charismatic renewal movement. Expulsion of the priests undermined the Catholic presence in Nicaragua, as it was meant to, Anitua said.67
Sandinista State Security went on another,rampage in the fall of 1985. They "detained" more than fifty priests, who were subsequently treated as prisoners. They took the priests' fingerprints and photographs. At least one was beaten. About one hundred Catholic laymen were treated in the same manner, including eight men who had organized a welcoming procession for Cardinal Obando in Chinandega on November 10. Obando y Bravo is not allowed to hold open-air Masses or processionals.
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Sandinistas Attack Pope John Paul II
The most blatant action by the Sandinistas against the church, however, occurred during the 1983 visit of Pope John Paul II. The Pope was forced to say Mass in Managua's main plaza before an altar without a cross while thousands of hecklers planted by State Security shouted Sandinista slogans and verbally attacked him.
The goal of State Security was to force the Pope to bless the Sandinista "martyrs" who had died in combat against the anti-Sandinista guerrillas and to punish him if he refused to do so. They arranged where Sandinista Defense Committee members (the neighborhood organizations which are responsible for party fidelity on every block in Nicaragua) would stand, what they would chant, and what they would say to the Pope.68 In order to insure that these activities went well, highly trusted defense members and about one hundred and fifty security officers went to the plaza well before the Mass. They placed themselves in front of the stage directly below where the Pope would stand.
Buses from the neighborhoods were also subordinated to the Cornmittees, and real Catholics were forced to travel to the Mass with Defense Committee escorts. Many Catholics tried to go to the Plaza early in order to circumvent the Sandinistas, but many of them first went to church to pray. That was a mistake. Members of the divine mobs surrounded the churches and would not allow them to leave until the Mass had begun. The real Catholics were still in the majority at the plaza, Bolaños-Hunter (who was there) said, but they found it impossible to interfere with Sandinista activities without being beaten, killed, or reported to State Security.69
All the planning was rewarded. Pope John Paul was subjected to extreme verbal abuse from the hecklers when he refused to bless the Sandinista dead. Further, during the Mass women from the Heroes' Mothers organization - whose sons were said to have been killed in combat - and some men from the turbas went on stage. They grabbed the microphone from the Pope's hands and demanded he pray for their "heroes." These activities were directed by Commander Manuel Calderon of State Security.70
When a group of five or six Catholics tried to go to the stage to help the Pope, Lenin Cerna, the head of State Security, took a machine-gun from one of his body guards, pulled the bolt, and told them if they went any further he would shoot them.71
There was so much shouting and chanting from the crowd that the Pope could not continue. The mob leaders had taken the microphone which was connected to an enormous sound system the government had bought especially for the event. There is no question that this unforgivable demonstration was blessed by the junta. Daniel Ortega and the other eight commandantes stood on a platform near the Pope, urging the mob on, shouting slogans themselves and raising their fists in the air.72
Sandinista attitudes toward the Pope (and of religion in general) are now well understood by the people of Nicaragua. When they wish to protest against the regime they put a picture of John Paul on the front of their houses and stores.73
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Carballo And His "Parishioner"
Another ugly attack against a religious figure occurred in 1982 when the Cardinal's assistant, the Rev. Bismark Carballo (who is also head of Catholic Radio), was having lunch with a woman parishioner. Carballo said the woman had come to him for counseling and later begged him to come to her home for lunch. As they were eating, however, an armed man burst into the house, pistol-whipped the priest, and forced him to take off all his clothes. The woman also undressed. At that time a photographer strolled in and took a picture of
In the meantime, a demonstration just happened to be marching down the woman's street, ostensibly on its way to the Argentine Embassy. They had to take a detour to pass the woman's home, however, a detail which was not overlooked by the foreign press. The street outside the woman's house was also filled with television cameras and reporters from government newspapers. They were supposedly covering the march.
When Carballo was dragged out of the house (the armed man had to have help from members of State Security), he was photographed again by television cameras and jeered by the crowd. The woman claimed she was having an afternoon frolic with Carballo when her husband unexpectedly returned home. The government press had a field day with the story. Barricada, however, did not bother to explain why the mob just happened to take a detour, why they disbanded after the incident (instead of continuing to the Argentine Embassy), or why State Security officers just happened to be at the house in time to rush in and help the "husband" pull Carballo out of the house. The woman and her supposed husband were never named.
The entire incident soon took on the characteristics of a vaudeville act. It was discovered at the beginning of the "juicio," or preliminary hearing, that the alleged husband was not the same man whose picture appeared in the paper as the husband. When the anti-Sandinista newspaper La Prensa tried to publish this fact, it was censored.74 The government eventually dropped plans for a trial (the woman had brought suit against Carballo) but continued to attack Carbatio by printing lewd cartoons of him in officially backed publications.75
The incident caused such anger in Nicaragua that Catholic high school students occupied numerous school buildings to show their Support for Carballo. Subsequently the pro-Carballo students and pro-government youth clashed, leaving two young people dead and seven injured.76 The Monimboseno Indians (who rose first against Somoza) rioted and attacked police stations, leaving three dead.77
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"The Invasion Of The Sects"
Moravians are not the only Protestants that have been attacked in Nicaragua. The official government newspaper Barricada in 1982 Published two front-page, eight-column reports on Nicaragua's Protestants titled "The Invasion of the Sects." Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormans, and the Jehovah's Witnesses were portrayed as superstitious, manipulative fanatics who are part of a world strategy of cultural penetration directed by the United States government.78
Tomás Borgé subsequently went on the radio and announced that the churches under investigation were "enemies" funded by the CIA. He said that the State Council would require religious sects to register with authorities before they could open their doors.79
He then encouraged the turbas to act against the Protestant churches. By August 1982, more than twenty Managuan Protestant churches had been seized by the mobs. Some of the confiscated properties were eventually returned, but only on condition that the pastors not criticize the government.80 The Salvation Army left Nicaragua permanently in 1980 after "ominous verbal threats from authorities, and, finally, instructions to close up the program and leave the country."81
Threats against Protestants materialized in 1985 when the Sandinistas begun to arrest Protestant Christians. Many of the Protestants were arrested in the middle of the night, stripped naked, and interrogated in "refrigerator" rooms. State Security attempted to force them to confess they were involved with the anti-Sandinista guerrillas. The interrogators also made attempts to entrap church workers in what would appear to be sexual improprieties."82 Several had their lives threatened and were ordered to cease all evangelical activity.
Turbas, once the favorite weapon used against Catholics, became ecumenical when they were sent to disrupt services in the Managua neighborhood of San Judas. Members of the Protestant church were attacked, and the pastor was forced to stop his crusade.83
Nicaragua's Jewish community has been treated almost as badlv as the Christian community. After receiving death threats, having had their businesses and property confiscated, and the synagogue torched and later confiscated, almost the entire Jewish population in Nicaragua fled.84
There were approximately two hundred Jews in Nicaragua in the early 1970s and there are now approximately fifty. Typical harassment tactics have been incidents such as the jailing of Abraham Gorn. the president of the Jewish community. Gorn was forced to sweep tne streets, his factory was expropriated, his bank account seized, and he was evicted from his home. The government-controlled newspaper Nuevo Diario has called Jewish places of worship "Synagogues of Satan."85
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Protestant pastors have also been assaulted with the intent to kill, and Christian workers have been murdered. Pentecostal Prudencio Baltodano, speaking at a White House briefing in 1984, related his torture at the hands of the Sandinistas. After witnessing a battle between the contras and Sandinistas Baltodano said he, his family, and about forty neighbors - only one of whom was a grown man - fled to the mountains. The next day the Sandinista forces found them and tied up both men. The Sandinistas let the women go, but marched the men to a nearby farm and beat them, accusing them of recruiting for the contras.86
"This was an accusation that was not based in fact, not true . . . the only kind of conquest that I was trying to make was to conquer people to convince them to come over to God and Christ," Baltodano said. "The soldiers said to me 'Pastors and preachers are our enemies. We do not believe in God. In case you're interested, and for your information, we are Communist.' Then he introduced me to one of his colleagues and said: 'This is God.'87
"Then he said to me: 'Start to pray and see if your God will save you,' Then he ordered another soldier to take me up to a hill. They took me into a wooden area about 10 meters (30 feet) away. One guy said to another: 'Tie him up.' . . . The soldier tried to put the bayonet on the end of his rifle, but he was not able to get it in, so he threw the rifle down and took the bayonet, took me by the hair and cut one ear off. . . . " The soldiers tried to cut off a second ear, but only succeeded in maiming it.88
The soldiers believed they cut Baltodano's jugular vein and left him for what they thought was certain death. Fortunately, they were wrong and he was rescued before he bled to death. His ears have subsequently been restored through plastic surgery.
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Baltodano told the group that his case was not an isolated instance, but one of many. That accusation was verified in 1985 when former Sandinista State Security officer Alvaro Baldizon-Aviles defected to the United States and accused his former government of murdering thousands of political dissidents.
Baldizon-Aviles told the American government and the Institute on Religion and Democracy that in 1983 he personally investigated the case of members of a Catholic organization, Delegates of the Word, who were tortured and murdered by officers of State Security. Baldizon said the couple (who had small children) were kidnapped from their home in San Miguelito (with a neighbor who had witnessed the kidnapping) and taken to the country. The woman was raped, and all the prisoners had their throats cut. The killers left to get a shovel, but when they returned they found the woman still alive. They then cut her throat again, then shot her with a AK-47 rifle.89
After the government was pressured by a Dutch commission on human rights, the officers were tried for the murders and sentenced to thirty years in prison. However, when the commission left the country, the men were released from prison and returned to duty.90
Other instances which reveal the Sandinistas' real attitudes toward Christianity are as follows:
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- Encarnacion Valdivia, a former Sandinista guerrilla fighter and now a contra with the nickname of "El Tigrillo," said that after the FSLN came to power the army offered a six-day pass to anyone who renounced God. Soldiers who defended God, Valdivia said, got a red M in their record books and after the third M they would disappear. The letter M was short for muerte (death).91
- Geraldine de Macias - a former Maryknoll nun and now wife to exiled Sandinista cabinet member Edgard de Macias - has said the director of CEPAD, a "religious" organization now affiliated with the FSLN, told her that he had been approached by one of the organization's youth leaders. The young man, who had recently joined the FSLN, was troubled because he had been told that he could never have military status while he remained a Christian.92
- Miguel Bolaños-Hunter recalls a Mass given by Ernesto Cardenal, the erstwhile priest who now holds a post in the Sandinista government, while he was a guerrilla in the mountains. "It was the strangest Mass I ever experienced," he said. "Cardenal said that we were Christ, and the revolution was God. We were the saviors of Nicaragua. He said that it was a Christian duty to be a guerrilla.93
"He spoke of his own ideas about Marxism and the new society in the daily political training meetings in the mountains. I asked him privately how he combined God and Marxism. He explained that he really believed in history. He didn't believe in God anymore. He wasn't confused. He confused the people."94
Bolaños's testimony was upheld by Cardenal's statement to Barricada, made in 1985. Cardenal said, "For me, the Revolution is the Kingdom of God on earth."95 According to Bolaóos, State Security is considering sending young Sandinistas to seminary to become priests, in order to control the church. The party has already infiltrated the evangelical church, he said, because it is easier to become a pastor than a priest.
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- According to a spokesman for Nicaragua's Discipleship Training Seminars there have been attempts to stop the practice of Christianity in the prison system.96
"In one instance," he said, "guards were ordered to separate all the Christian leaders from the general prison population. They then removed all the Christian literature they could find and burned it in front of the prisoners. Many of the most noted church leaders were removed from their usual cell blocks and reassigned to undisclosed locations."97
"Prisoners immediately staged a hunger strike protesting the drastic action against their leaders," the publication carrying the interview said, "and officials eventually relented by allowing the prisoners to have one Bible each. Many guards were removed because they appeared to sympathize with the Christians. It is known that several guards accepted Christ while guarding the 'notorious' Christian prisoners.98
"Today the trend has shifted once again. In April 1984, families visiting Christian prisoners reported (hat it appears that all Christian literature has been removed from prison cells, and the organized churches have been prohibited from holding worship services."99
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Campus Crusade For Christ
- Jimmy Hassan, a member of Nicaragua's Campus Crusade for Christ, said in a prayer letter released to the general public in May 1984 that he had been summoned, for the seventh time, by the Ministry of Justice. The official interrogated Hassan about Crusade activities, then handed him a document which stated that Hassan would "discontinue developing all evangelistic efforts; further, our coordinators were to promise to desist from going to the National University campus or any other secondary school.
"When she asked me to sign this document," Hassan said, "I firmly protested and refused to do so, and after several explanations she presented me with another document. In this one I was notified that Campus Crusade for Christ was strictly prohibited to carry off any activities that results in the preaching of the gospel." Hassan signed the document but added a note that said he did not intend to carry out its directives.
Hassan left Nicaragua in 1985 after the Nicaraguan government unjustly charged that he, and other ministers, were guilty of breaking a law banning criticism of the military draft. Hassan said the campaign against Christians had been intensified in 1985; pastors are followed on the streets, phones are tapped, ministers are questioned nearly every day, and all organizations that are not related to the Sandinista government (such as CEPAD) have been closed.100
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- Evangelists have been deliberately frustrated in their attempts to hold crusades in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas forbade Alberto Mottesi, an Argentinian evangelist, to advertise his November 1984 crusade except for spot announcements on Ondas de Luz, a heavily censored Christian radio station. No commercial television, other radio stations, or newspapers were allowed to publicize the meeting. On the second crusade night an enormous Russian-made military truck appeared and dozens of heavily-armed turbas-members jumped off the back. When they saw thousands of people in the stands, however, they were ordered back into the truck and were driven away.101 One night the power was cut off in the section of the city where the crusade was being held, and the bus routes were detoured so that those wishing to attend were forced to walk several kilometers to reach the stadium.102
Oklahoma evangelist Larry Jones had the same experience as Mottesi. He told the authors that he was invited to Nicaragua in 1985 by the National Council of Evangelical Pastors. He had prior approval to hold his crusade from government officials as important as Daniel Ortega. He had also been promised that he could use the National Stadium in Managua. However, when Jones and the shipment of food and Bibles he brought for the poor reached Nicaragua, it was a different story. The government announced he could not use the National Stadium after all and did not tell him, until forty-five minutes before the crusade was scheduled to begin, which stadium he could use.103
Luckily for Jones, he had already despaired of using a stadium and had arranged to use a local churchyard. Due to the confusion, however, he only had two thousand people at the crusade instead of the planned forty thousand. Government officials had promised he could broadcast the service, but the power just happened to go off at the station the night Jones was supposed to broadcast.104
Jones had brought $100,000 worth of rice, beans, and Bibles to Nicaragua to distribute to the poor, as his organization has done all over the world. The government refused to release the supplies from government warehouses for six months. When they finally did so, the recipients were only given half of the rice that had been brought into the country and suspected that it had been switched. It was extremely stale although most rice can be safely stored for six months. The Bibles were finally released, but the government refused to release the twelve thousand copies of a sermon Jones had planned to distribute.105
When Jones tried to enter the country again, in September of 1985, the Sandinistas first refused to let him enter because he lacked a six months validation on his passport. He spent that night in Managua with a guard at his door, then flew to El Salvador to get his passport brought up to date. When he returned the next day, the government refused to let him enter the country because, he was later told, they had passed a law that no foreign "gospel preachers" could address mass audiences.106
Jones said he had taken no political stance before going to Nicaragua and is willing to give any government the benefit of the doubt. His philosophy about politics, he said, is that "when the elephant walks, the grass gets trampled." He says, "I was literally lied to."107
If it is possible to pick an "absolutely worst" attack on religion by the Sandinistas, the following event would undoubtedly be the one. According to Alvaro Baldizon, Bernardo, the sacristan who had visions of the Virgin Mary, was kidnapped by State Security in 1982, drugged, taken to a motel, and raped by a homosexual. The rape, of course, was videotaped. For special effect, the Sandinistas placed a statue of the Virgin above the bed and had candles fit at the base. Baldizon said Bernardo was told to stop talking about his experiences with the Virgin Mary or face the consequences. He apparently decided to stop talking.
Bernardo's silence has not helped the Sandinistas. People still stream to Cuapa, and a new church is being built to commemorate Bernardo's visions.
It is ironic that the Catholic Church, under the leadership of Cardinal Obando, once supported the Sandinistas that are now trying to destroy it. The Sandinista claim that Obando has always opposed the revolution is a lie. Throughout the seventies, the church refused gifts from the dictator and Obando directed a campaign against Somoza's violations of human rights.108 In 1979 Obando fearlessly announced that Somoza had become intolerable and that Christians could, in good conscience, rebel against him.109
An "infuriated" Somoza retaliated by conducting a defamation campaign against the archbishop, whom he once called "Commandante Obando."110 The bishops of Nicaragua went so far as to issue a pastoral letter after the Sandinista triumph which supported the new regime. Obando gave a victory Mass. None of the church's support has made a difference. The Sandinistas are obviously determined to destroy Christianity.
That determination, however, has not made much difference to most Nicaraguans. They are still faithful. A 1981 poll proved the Cardinal the most popular man in Nicaragua. (Shortly after that poll was released, the Sandinistas banned polls altogether.) Crowds attend his Masses despite the Sandinista agents who take notes on the front pew, despite government forces which are often outside the church trying to drown out the homily.
The most telling incident concerning Nicaragua's real feelings about the Sandinistas and Christianity happened on Good Friday, 1984. According to ABC News, a crowd estimated at one hundred thousand gathered for a religious procession which turned into a "passionate demonstration of solidarity with the Catholic Church and op.position to the Sandinista regime.
"Marchers shouted, 'Free Nicaragua and Christ forever."111
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The Betrayal of the Church Copyright © 1986 by Edmund W. Robb and Julia Robb. Published by Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Westchester, Illinois 60153
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