When Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes heard that paramilitaries had surrounded a basilica in the city of Diriamba, he dropped everything and rushed there. Masked men seemingly working for the government had trapped protesters inside and the cardinal feared a massacre. More than 300 people have been killed in Nicaragua since April, when the state announced pension reforms and benefits cuts. The Church’s direct intervention has helped to save hundreds of lives.

Accompanied by the country’s Polish nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, and Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez, Cardinal Brenes tried to free those inside St Sebastian Basilica. The three prelates were pushed around as onlookers derided them as “murderers” (state media have portrayed demonstrators as “terrorists” and the Church as an accomplice). Bishop Báez later tweeted a photo of a gash on his arm. “I was injured, punched in the stomach, they took my episcopal symbols away from me, and verbally attacked me,” he wrote. But the trio did eventually free the protesters.

Days later, Cardinal Brenes and Archbishop Sommertag were called to another siege. Some 200 students were pinned inside a Catholic chaplaincy at the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua. Before the pair arrived two students were killed and at least 10 injured. They again secured the protesters’ release and arranged for them to be driven across Managua to the safety of the metropolitan cathedral.

Why are churchmen having to risk their lives in a country that, despite recent growth among Mormons and Evangelicals, remains roughly 70 per cent Catholic? The answer is that the president, Daniel Ortega, is desperate to cling to power despite the nationwide protests. Ortega’s name may be familiar to those who remember the Sandinista revolution of 1979. He was a leading figure in that movement, which ended the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

After disappearing into the political wilderness for more than a decade, Ortega returned to power in 2006. Since then he has morphed into a dictator, banning opposition candidates, packing courts with supporters and rewriting the country’s constitution. When convenient, he has treated the Church as an ally. Today, as he brutally crushes protests, he sees it as an enemy.

Despite international condemnation, Ortega seems to have largely quelled the rebellion. But to remain in power, he will have to be ever more repressive. Nicaragua’s economy is shrinking and it is hard to see how Ortega can rebuild relations with the Church, whose standing has risen thanks to its bishops’ bravery. Cardinal Brenes has denounced the regime as “demonic”, so there is not much room for compromise.

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