DIRIAMBA, Nicaragua – A pro-government mob pushed, battered and scratched Cardinal Leopold Brenes and other Catholic leaders as they attempted to enter the Basilica of San Sebastian. "Killer!" People called. An auxiliary bishop was hit on the arm with a kind of sharp object.
The ugly scene in the normally sleepy city of Diriamba, an hour's drive south of Nicaragua's capital, was a dramatic example of how quickly a wave of unrest has subsided Relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the beleaguered President Daniel Ortega
The Church has attempted to play a mediating role between Ortega's Sandinista government and protesters, who increasingly demanded his release from demonstrations and clashes involving around 450 people ̵
Brenes, archbishop of Managua, went to Diriamba o On July 9th, one day after I had phoned the priests and heard shots and ambulances. He found doctors and nurses who tended to wound protesters and now seek refuge in the basilica, surrounded by government forces.
"There was a fear that they would invade the church to find the people who sought refuge there." said Rev. Cesar Alberto Castillo Rodríguez
Despite the scuffle at the door, Brenes' delegation, which included the Vatican's chief diplomat in Nicaragua, was able to evacuate people from the church.
Two weeks later, despite a massive police presence, the church is covered in pro-government graffiti.
"My Commander Remains," reads a scribble, an allusion to Ortega, and others contain vulgar insults. They are signed "JS" for the Spanish-speaking initials of the Sandinista Youth, a pro-government organization that has acted as riot squads against protesters.
The basilica finally resumed service, but how many churches in Nicaragua did she have In the evening they held mass when police and armed gangs of Pro-Ortega ruled the streets.
"We noticed that people are not coming," said Brenes.
The Church, essentially the last independent institution that A large part of Nicaragua is witness to the whipping of Ortega, who has found himself in the midst of the most serious challenge to his power in this decade – and since he regained his office.
In April, the president asked the church to mediate peace talks. But the dialogue collapsed quickly when it became clear that he would not continue the elections planned for 2021.
Last week, Ortega accused the bishops of communicating with putschists and storing weapons in churches – without offering any evidence. and he said they were "disqualified" as mediators.
Days later, he reversed the course, saying he hoped the church would continue to mediate and insist that the government not persecute them.
Ortega's strategy with the church has always been either charming or intimidating, "said Henri Gooren, an anthropologist at Oakland University in Michigan and editor of the Encyclopedia of Latin American Religions." I think he has found out that charm does not work … all he can do now is intimidate her, try to deprive her of her credibility. "
Ortega tells his verbal attacks" especially to his supporters the (pro-ruling gangs ), "They can go on beating up priests and bishops and destroying church buildings without punishment," Gooren said.
This week, Brenes and his bishops met and agreed to dialogue, the only option he sees to stop the violence. While Nicaraguan's "democratization" discussion never went beyond Ortega's refusal to leave office, he said the negotiators could have received help for arrested demonstrators, the peaceful elimination of some barricades, and the access of international observers such as the OAS.
he sees it, without the dialogue more would have been killed.
The 69-year-old cardinal can also have a long-term view because he has been through this before.
Interviewed on the terrace of his modest house in Berlin In Managua, Brenes recalled how, decades ago, as a young priest, he hosted youths who supported Ortega's Sandinista Front when they were pursued by National Guard troops from the Somoza dictatorship
and in 1979, after being transferred to a community in Jinotepe, fighters have taken over his church. Once a sniper with a wife and a young girl captured him in the vicarage. They hid under a sink for three days and survived biscuits and a bag of pinol, a cornstarch and chocolate powder mixed with water or milk.
In 1991, Brenes helped mediate between the Sandinista army and US-backed contra rebels the mountains of Matagalpa and back and forth between representatives of two sides who did not even want to approach.
After Ortega's speech called the Episcopal coup, Brenes said he had the Spanish word "golpista" in which he found the opposite of what he intended.
"I read there, 'Someone who acts to take power & # 39 ;," said Brenes. These are not us. "
Ortega repeatedly came into conflict with the conservative authorities of the church when his socialist Sandinists ruled in the 1980s – a time when many young left-wing priests governed Angrily Ortega worked to improve relations with the church after losing elections in the 1990s, and when he returned to power in 2006, he frequently made public piety ads and closed one Friendship with the leader of the Nicaraguan Church, the late Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo
When the new wave of protests erupted in April – initially through cuts in the social security system – government forces and the Sandinista youth struck hard.
On April 20, hundreds of student protests sought refuge in Managua Cathedral, where the church raised funds to support demonstrators. When the police and the Sandinista youth fell, the students retreated inside, leaving it only after clerics negotiated their safe passage.
Brenes and several bishops made public statements against violence and for dialogue. Later, the Episcopal Conference issued a stronger condemnation of the crackdown and called on the authorities "to hear the cry of the young Nicaraguans."
For the most part, the Vatican was silent about the conflict and, as is usual behind the scenes, hesitated on diplomacy, while the local church handled the situation on the ground.
Last week, Pope Francis' ambassador to Nicaragua issued a statement that expressed "the pope's deep concern about the serious situation".
On the same day as the attack in Diriamba, Ortega's supporters plundered the community of Santiago Apostol in Jinotepe and threw pews down the front steps while they shouted that the church was home to terrorists.
The most shocking incident occurred at the Church of Jesus of Divine Mercy in Managua
15 hours overnight, on 13 and 14 July, armed government supporters fired at the church, while 155 students protested by one located near the university, under the pews. A student shot in the head outside in a barricade died on the parsonage floor.
Brenes made sure they arrived safely in the city's cathedral.
The Divine Mercy Facade is still shaken by hundreds of impacts. A small chapel behind the main sanctuary bore the heaviest fire; Walks pierced a picture of Jesus Christ and bounced off the gilded box with the sacrament.
On a recent Sunday, parishioner Nelly Harding, 56, wiped away tears as she left the chapel, "If they do not respect the house of God, do not respect the lives of defenseless people, what can we hope for?"  Pastor Erick Alvarado Cole said the police had not come to investigate and the scars of the building would be left as they are. 19659002] "These holes in the walls, the Christ, the side chapel, the windows will in this way prove the pain of the Nicaraguan people," said Alvarado. "When it gets repaired, it's like nothing happened."
Associated Press author Nicole Winfield contributed to this report from Rome.