CSW has today published a new report on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Nicaragua which finds that the government is aggressively attempting to eliminate independent civil society and is responsible for a growing number of serious FoRB violations.
The report, entitled ‘Nicaragua: Civil society under siege’ covers a twelve-month period beginning in November 2021 and is based on first-hand documentation carried out on the ground by Nicaraguan FoRB defenders with support from human rights defenders who have been forced into exile. Documented violations include arbitrary detention, denial of entry to Nicaragua or forced expulsion from the country, threats, harassment, the forced cancellation of religious activities, confiscation of property and the arbitrary cancellation of the legal status of civil society organisations, including many of a religious nature, on a massive scale.
The report explores in depth the way the Nicaraguan government under the leadership of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo, have tightened their grip on power and intensified efforts to eradicate critical voices from the country. Independent media outlets, including television and radio channels linked to Roman Catholic and Protestant groups were forced to shut down.
Entire communities of faith, including nuns affiliated with both the Missionaries of Charity and the Cross of the Sacred Heart of Jesus orders were expelled from the country in June and September respectively. A number of religious leaders holding Nicaraguan citizenship were prevented from boarding return flights home after traveling abroad after the government informed the airlines that the targeted individuals would not be allowed entry.
Both Roman Catholic and Protestant religious leaders are regularly monitored, harassed and threatened, with the government placing informants in congregations to report on the content of prayers and sermons, for example. Many reported receiving visits from government agents, some in uniform and others in civilian clothes, who threatened them with violence or imprisonment because of something they had said during a religious service, in one case a simple call to ‘pray for the situation in Nicaragua’ was interpreted as critical of the government. At least 12 Roman Catholic priests and lay leaders were arbitrarily detained and imprisoned or put under house arrest this year. A Protestant pastor who was detained and imprisoned in December 2021 is reportedly being held in isolation in a punishment cell.
One Nicaraguan human rights defender told CSW: ‘Ortega is imprisoning all religious [leaders] and any church that raises its voice in favor of the people and against the dictatorship. He wants to give countries abroad the impression that everything is in order and that there is no problem in Nicaragua. Internally, he oppresses the vast majority of the people who live without information due to poverty. Very few have access to social networks because they cannot cover the costs since the little that is earned daily is [dedicated] to the survival of their family. The dictatorship dominates the radio and television media, the private cable networks. It has eliminated religious channels and radio stations little by little. It has done the same thing with private radio stations in order that what is really happening in the country goes uncovered. All of this, the socio-political and economic situation, has led to extreme poverty and the great departure of thousands of Nicaraguans into exile.’
CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna Lee Stangl said: ‘Nicaragua is in a critical state as the government follows the Cuban model of attempting to eliminate or co-opt independent civil society. Religious groups and communities of faith are a significant sector within independent civil society, and it is no surprise that religious leaders, who can have significant societal influence, have become a target of the regime. The European Union and the United States (US) have been rightly critical of the Nicaraguan government and the US was right to add Nicaragua to its list of Countries of Particular Concern for FoRB violations. The international community must now urgently identify effective and creative ways to support independent civil society in the country before it is eradicated altogether. States should also explore ways, including through visa bans, to hold Nicaraguan officials and members of paramilitary groups who are responsible for egregious violations of FoRB and other human rights to account.’
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