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Nicaragua in peril

Daniel Ortega's power grab fuels persecution.

Jane Cacouris is a writer and consultant working in international development on environment, poverty and livelihood issues.

An balding man with a moustache turns to look at a camera.
President Daniel Ortega.

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America with a varied and beautiful landscape; towering volcanoes, unique freshwater habitats - Lake Nicaragua is the region’s largest lake - and spectacular marine environments. It has huge potential for development according to the World Bank. But despite this, not only does Nicaragua remain one of the poorest countries in the region but it is caught in the grip of an increasingly totalitarian regime that, according to a recent all-party “Nicaragua Inquiry Report” by UK Parliamentarians, is taking consistent steps to silence democracy and close civic space. This includes human rights violations against religious leaders, particularly within the Catholic Church, as well attacks against political opposition, journalists, scholars and human rights defenders. 

The Ortega dynasty 

President Daniel Ortego returned to power after a break of seventeen years in 2006. Historically a Marxist revolutionary, on his return as President, Ortega threw out his left-wing ideals for more achievable policies. However, in 2012, his politics took a disconcertingly authoritarian turn when he pressured the Nicaraguan Supreme Court to authorise his bid for a second presidential term. And more recently, the Nicaraguan Government, which includes Ortego’s wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, and several of their nine children in prominent positions, has escalated its campaign of persecution against Christians and the Catholic Church.  

The harassment started in 2018 with a wave of protests across Nicaragua. University students and others took to the streets to demonstrate against the Government’s proposed social security reforms set to increase pressure on workers whilst providing fewer benefits. Ortega, seeing these protests as a threat, responded with violence using pro-government militia and security forces. According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), 355 people were killed and approximately 2,000 injured making it the deadliest and most violent protest since the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979. Following these protests, the Ortega regime then escalated its human rights violations raising concerns internationally. According to the UNHCR, since 2018, neighbouring Costa Rica has hosted over 300,000 Nicaraguans seeking asylum. 

The intimidation and incarceration of clergymen under the Ortega regime in Nicaragua is particularly chilling. It sends a clear message of contempt for God’s priests. 

Persecution of Christians in a Christian-majority country 

The World Watch list is an annual report published by Open Doors, an NGO which supports Christians worldwide, and lists the fifty countries in which Christians face the ‘most extreme persecution’. The latest report shows Nicaragua has risen up the list, from number 50 last year to number 30 in 2024 rankings. Over 95% of the Nicaraguan population profess to be Christian, so this is perhaps a surprising development.  

In 2022, according to the Nicaragua Inquiry, President Ortega was reported to have:

“ordered the arrest of, forced into exile, and verbally attacked priests and bishops, labelling them ‘criminals’ and ‘coup-plotters,’ and accusing them of inciting violence.”  

Most publicly known about is the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison and later exiled to the Vatican and stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship. At the end of 2023, the Government arrested and detained seventeen clergymen including Father Silvio Fonseca, an open critic of the Nicaraguan government’s intense persecution of the Catholic Church, and two Bishops who publicly offered prayers for Álvarez before they were arrested.  

In Latin America, culturally there is a reverence for clergymen that differs to what we see in the West. I lived in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil for a number of years and worked with my husband (who is an ordained Anglican priest) in a favela (shantytown) routinely patrolled by armed gangs. When we first enquired about the safety of walking into the community on our own, a local resident assured us that we would be fine, saying “They will never shoot a pastor”. Perhaps that is why the intimidation and incarceration of clergymen under the Ortega regime in Nicaragua is particularly chilling. It sends a clear message of contempt for God’s priests that will strike to the very core of people of faith across the country.  

Over the past year, according to the Inquiry, the Nicaraguan government has also systematically targeted and closed religious organisations that it views as opponents and banned Catholic traditions such as street processions during Holy Week. A journalist was recently sentenced to eight years in prison for reporting on an Easter procession. And perhaps most insidiously, the government has begun to routinely intimidate worshippers, with uniformed and plain clothes government agents visibly monitoring religious services to intimidate clergy and churchgoers.  

Three centuries of religious persecution across the world 

Religious persecution is etched firmly into the history of humanity through to the modern day. From Emperor Nero’s outlawing of Christians across the Roman Empire to the persecution of Muslims and Jews in the Crusades, to the Armenian genocide in Turkey following the First World War to attacks on the Rohingya in modern-day Myanmar.  

Today religious freedom is a hallmark of a developed society, widely considered to be a basic human right. And indeed, the right to freedom of religion or belief is relevant to an array of SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) aiming to reduce inequality and improve health, education, gender equality, access to justice and climate action. Religious inequalities and discrimination are key obstacles for progress in many of these areas.  

According to UN’s Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion… either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”  

But in spite of this global commitment, and although 123 of the 193 Member States of the United Nations have served as Council members on the UN Human Rights Council (of which Nicaragua is currently a member state), religious freedom is under threat in many parts of the world today. And it takes many different forms. Some countries in the Middle East expressly forbid all religions except Islam whilst others, such as North Korea, do not permit any religion at all. The most recent annual report of the USCIRF lists 28 countries—home to well over 50 per cent of the world’s population—with Governments actively persecuting their citizens for their religious views.  

But is it about religion or is it all about power?   

In Nicaragua, the Catholic Church has power in numbers and therefore an influential voice. When Christians such as Bishop Álvarez, a vocal defender of civic freedoms, began to join other civil society actors in speaking out more critically against the Government, the persecution began. Catholic clergymen have long been targeted for speaking out against authoritarian regimes in other Latin American countries. For example, Archbishop Romero y Galdamez was assassinated in 1980 in San Salvador when he appealed to the military dictatorship to stop the brutal repression of the people.  

But arguably, the Ortega regime’s crackdown on Christians isn’t only because of its fears of the Catholic Church’s power and influence in Nicaragua.  

Having the capacity and choice to believe in God - to have faith - is a profound and powerful characteristic of being human. For Christians, faith in God and Jesus Christ comes first, before any political, social, or economic order. Humans who have a real and living faith in a higher power are defined by it, both individually in how they live out their lives and collectively in how they come alongside others who share the same faith. Perhaps that is why totalitarian regimes that lay claims on the whole person and want ultimate power and control over the collective, are so intent on destroying or co-opting religion.  

Thankfully the international community is on alert. Ortega is being called out for his regime’s spiralling human rights record and persecution of Christians. But there is no room for apathy. In the book of Proverbs in the Bible, it says “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves… Defend the rights of the poor and those in need.”  

As the words of the poem, First They Came by Pastor Martin Niemöller presented at the start of the Nicaragua Inquiry Report movingly remind us, 

First, they came for the Communists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Communist 

Then they came for the Socialists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Socialist 

Then they came for the trade unionists 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a trade unionist 

Then they came for the Jews 

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Jew 

Then they came for me 

And there was no one left 

To speak out for me 

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Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.