- Population: 6,545,502
- Main Language: Spanish
- Official Religion: None
- Main Religion: Predominantly Christian and majority Catholic Christians
- Other Religions: Buddhists, Ethnoreligionist, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, among others
- President: Daniel Ortega (2007 – undefined)
* Upcoming elections: November 7, 2021
In accordance with the Constitution, Nicaragua is a democratic and representative, independent, free and sovereign Republic. In addition, establishes the principle of division of powers and its normative hierarchy considers the Constitution as the supreme basis of the entirely legal system. Laws, treaties, decrees, etc. that oppose or alter its provisions, have no value.
However, in practice, the various institutions and powers of the state are subject to the guidelines of the Sandinista National Liberation Front – FSLN (for its acronym in Spanish), a movement that led the Sandinista revolution, inspired by the legacy of Augusto C. Sandino and the Cuban revolution.
Since 1979 the FSLN installed a revolutionary government, first in charge of the Junta de Gobierno de Reconstrucción Nacional, then under the presidency of Daniel Ortega during the periods 1984-1990 and later, from 2007 to date, as a consequence of irregular constitutional reforms that allowed the indefinite reelection of the president.
Although the social and political crisis that erupted in April 2018 has been mentioned lately, the regime showed signs of authoritarianism long before. During the almost 20 years with Daniel Ortega as president, the various branches of government were co-opted, turning the Nicaraguan government into an authoritarian regime, marked by frequent episodes of corruption, nepotism, electoral fraud, and serious human rights violations, a situation that has led to serious institutional deterioration and the gradual weakening of the opposition.
Since April 2018, the repressive strategies of the regime and the undermining of multiple civil and political rights of the population, including the right to religious freedom, became more evident at the international level.
Tactics such as cooptation of the media, restriction of public services, abuse and excessive violence by the security body against the dissident population, often with the collaboration of vigilante groups, prohibition, and criminalization of protests, arbitrary detentions, disappearances, among others, have escalated in intensity and have become regular practices against any critical voice of the government.
The continuity of the regime is possible due to the roots of corruption. The cooptation of state institutions by the party allows oppressive actions to be carried out against the opposition with total impunity.
This context was particularly aggravated during the COVID-19 pandemic and further exacerbated the economic and social crisis that was already affecting the country, leading thousands of inhabitants into exile.
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
Among the constitutional provisions that protect freedom of conscience, thought, and to profess a religion or not, we find:
Figure 1: Religious Freedom – Main legal framework
|Church-State Relationship||Freedom of religion||Places of worship / Patrimonial Regime||Political participation of religious leaders||Religious Education||Military Service/Spiritual attention Armed Forces|
|Political Constitution of the Republic of Nicaragua||Art. 14||Art. 29Art. 69||Art. 49||Art. 134Art. 147||Art. 124||Art. 96|
The religious affiliation of the population in the country is mainly Christian. Although the Catholic religion is predominant, some Protestant groups are in full swing. Other religious minorities present include Muslims, Buddhists, and Bahaís.
At the normative level, the Constitution establishes that the State has no official religion, recognizes that Christian values are principles of the Nicaraguan nation, but also socialist ideals. It points out that everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, of thought and to profess a religion or not, however, it adds that no one can evade the observance of the laws, nor prevent others from exercising their rights and fulfilling their duties by invoking religious beliefs or dispositions.
Additionally, as a result of institutional weakening, rules and regulations designed to violate the civil and political rights of the population, including the rights of religious leaders and confessional groups, are becoming more frequent.
Among the most recent we can mention the Law of Regulation of Foreign Agents, by which the government seeks to block financing to civil society organizations that “interfere” in the internal and external affairs of the country; the constitutional amendment that will allow life imprisonment for “hate crimes”, an ambiguous definition that under the logic of the regime could include actions by opposition groups; or the Special Cybercrime Law, which aims to punish anyone who “spreads false news” on social networks or the media with jail.
In practice, the relationship between the government and religious groups depends on how useful these groups are to the party. During the revolution, unity was developed in Nicaragua between Sandinistas and a sector of Christians related to grassroots ecclesial communities, with a revolutionary tendency, but not with ecclesiastical hierarchies. For this reason, the FSLN considered that one could be a (Christian) believer and at the same time a consistent revolutionary, although adherence to a traditional religious doctrine was not promoted but rather a popular religiosity in which the Sandinista revolution and ideology were praised above all.
On the contrary, when the FSLN was part of the opposition (1990-2006), the strategy was one of rapprochement and dialogue with the Catholic hierarchy, distancing itself from the revolutionary Christian groups, in order to achieve legitimacy and win the presidential elections.
This background shows that the government’s strategy has been and continues to be the instrumentalization of the Christian religious culture of the Nicaraguan people in order to achieve supporters who legitimize the party and to achieve greater social control. Even during the pandemic, the government emphasized that health programs fulfilled a “Christian and solidarity commitment” or that they were part of “spiritual campaigns and invocation of the highest for life, health, and strength.”
In practice, it is clear that as long as the actions of religious groups or religious leaders do not match the interests of the regime, they will become target of repressive measures.
To date, the Catholic Church is one of the institutions that enjoy the greatest credibility and trust. After the social unrest unleashed in October 2018, it was the one that condemned the human rights violations against the dissent. The Church also participated in the roundtables held between the state and the opposition to act as a mediator and/or witness.
Given the lack of political will to adhere to the agreements, especially in relation to the release of political prisoners and the restoration of freedoms, rights, and guarantees, most Catholic leaders directed their efforts to accompany the population, demonstrating at the same time his disagreement with the government’s repressive measures. Due to the care and material and spiritual attention that the Church has given to the protesters and their families, the State has labeled and treated its members as coup plotters, terrorists, and/or enemies.
With respect to other Christian denominations, some Protestant groups focus on personal accompaniment, with a neutral stance; while others openly support the regime and have a close relationship with the authorities, a situation that places them in a privileged position compared to other religious groups.
A. Religious restrictions from totalitarian government control
Religious groups that are openly critical of the regime or that constantly denounce human rights violations are targets of harassment and abuse. The Catholic Church has become a victim of hostilities for the support they gave to the dissent during the social outbreak in 2018 and for their constant demand for new elections and the return to democracy in the country.
Among the actions carried out against members of the church known as opposition or related in any way to the opposition, we can identify verbal and physical violence, smear campaigns, death threats, arbitrary arrests, and constant surveillance. Places of worship, especially Catholic ones, are vandalized. Due to the frequency of these attacks, priests and parishioners organize night surveillance in the temples or protect the images in order to avoid acts of desecration.
The Organization of American States has not only introduced protective measures and injunctions on behalf of some of these Catholic leaders but has repeatedly called on the state to stop these practices.
At the end of 2020, the government began to obstruct the renewal of residences and entry permits for foreign priests due to their critical stance towards the government. Among other forms of pressure, authorities charged excessive amounts for basic services to Catholic churches, despite the decrease in activities during the COVID-19 crisis.
Security forces obstruct the humanitarian assistance work carried out by confessional groups, to the point that ecclesiastical authorities advise making donations anonymously for fear of reprisals from the police.
The Foreign Agents Regulation Law establishes that foreign agents must provide identification data of the foreign government (s), parties, and related entities. It also indicates that the agents in question must refrain – under penalty of legal sanctions – from intervening in internal and external political activities and they will not be able to finance or promote the financing of any organization, party, or coalition that carries out internal political activities in the country.
Although one of the exceptions to the rule includes religious institutions that are duly registered with the Ministry of the Interior, as long as religious organizations practice some type of activism that the government considers contrary to their interests, they could be sanctioned with fines and/or the cancellation of their legal status and the intervention of their assets, in addition to the corresponding criminal penalties.
In addition to the security forces and government supporters, criminal and paramilitary groups have become the muscle of the government. It is through these groups that dissidents or opponents of the party are intimidated and silenced. In general, none of those affected can find an instance, at least at the national level, in which such illegal actions are denounced or the guarantee of their rights can be demanded.
B. Religious restrictions from anti-religion political ideology (communism)
Despite the provisions of the Constitution, the government incorporates components inspired by the Cuban regime, even though it is not openly communist.
Regarding its relationship with religion, it is clear that instead of eradicating it, the government uses it and tries to mold it in accordance with the interests of the party. In other words, it particularly seeks to manipulate the contents of the Christian doctrine (the main religion of the country) to adapt it to fit the ideology of the regime. For this reason, any religion that condemns, criticizes, or questions the government’s postulates is classified as false, hostile, or a terrorist. The Christian church, in particular, has suffered retaliation for its open opposition and questioning of the communist ideology of the FSLN, to the point that its leaders and members have been treated as coupists and terrorists.
It is worth mentioning that the regime tries to incorporate the government’s postulates in schools to reach both children and young people. In this sense, the contents of the school curriculum exalt the party and present political leaders as heroes of the country. On occasion, the government has prohibited the participation of educational centers and/or student members, in religious activities, such as masses. Dissident teachers or students whose parents are known opponents, including Christians who are openly critical of, or related to critical government ministries, experience retaliation.
Religious freedom and the COVID-19 pandemic
The Ministry of Citizen Power announced the following measures to deal with the COVID-19: Attention only for those people who have symptoms and those who have tested positive for Coronavirus, home visits hand in hand with community health networks to communicate and promote health protection and defense measures, reception of calls from the National COVID-19 Information Center, disinfection of public spaces and public transport, as well as awareness about handwashing.
One of the government strategies, the Nicaraguan Army’s Forces and Media Employment Plan involves activities assigned to the army to counteract the pandemic. We can mention the reorientation of the production plans of the military industry for the production of suits, masks, disinfectant substances, etc., reinforcement of military units in border territories, disinfection activities of public spaces, and campaigns to communicate the basic prevention measures against COVID-19.
These measures were cataloged by local and international civil society organizations, health professionals and activists, as superficial and as a facade to demonstrate normality.
Unlike most countries in the region, confinement and/or immobilization were never part of the government plans. Neither economic, fiscal policies nor special funds were created to deal with the health and economic crisis. On the contrary, the regime did not recognize the seriousness of the situation and instead of following international health protocols, it provided little or no information regarding the advance of COVID-19 in the country and encouraged massive activities to promote false security among its inhabitants and reinforce the impression of maintaining control.
Religious communities’ response to the health emergency was varied. While some continued their activities on a regular basis, most limited religious celebrations and from the beginning of the pandemic continued their evangelizing and spiritual accompaniment work using the technological means at their disposal.
At the national level, the Catholic Church was one of the institutions that strongly criticized the government’s management of the pandemic, while at the same time called for civic responsibility and voluntary confinement. After a long period of self-imposed quarantine, the Catholic clergy resumed face-to-face religious services in October 2020 with proper security protocols. Despite the Church’s suspension of massive religious activities, the regime, exploiting the fervor of the people, called for the realization of processions and massive religious festivities, threatening the health of the population.
On the other hand, the opacity of the Sandinista government regarding the evolution of the pandemic motivated civil society organizations and also the Catholic Church to take the initiative and participate in campaigns to report on what was happening in the country and educate the population about information related to the coronavirus.
This stance – that openly contradicted the official government discourse – meant for religious communities, especially the Catholic Church, greater repression, showing that the regime authoritarian tendencies and hostilities were reinforced in the midst of the crisis.
The President and his allies accused priests and the Church of launching campaigns dedicated to sowing fear among the population called them traitors and irresponsibles and failed to allow initiatives by religious leaders to assist the most vulnerable, as was the case with the prohibition on the implementation of a medical center proposed by the Bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa to prevent the coronavirus. Vice-President Rosario Murillo called on the Bishops who expressed concern about the health of the people “demons who preach hatred”, accusing them of making “calls from hate bell towers” in an attempt to discredit their image and recommendations.
The use of the military as collaborative agents to assist in pandemic prevention tasks actually meant greater social control of religious leaders opposed to or related to the opposition to the Sandinista government.
Despite the few activities in churches or other temples of worship, some priests have denounced the inexplicable increase in the basic services bills (electricity and water) as a result of a possible alteration in the measurements made by authorities.
In addition, humanitarian assistance by faith-based organizations, so necessary in the midst of the social and economic crisis caused by the pandemic, is also at risk. Regulations such as the Foreign Agents Regulation Act condition the functioning of confessional organizations as long as their activities do not interfere with the country’s internal and external affairs. In other words, if religious organizations carry out any kind of activism that the government considers to be contrary to their interests, they could be punished with fines and/or the cancellation of their legal status and the intervention of their property, in addition to the corresponding criminal sanctions.
Violent Incidents Database
The Violent Incident Database (VID) is a service by the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America, designed to collect, record, and analyze violent incidents related to violations of religious freedom.
In many cases, the limitations on religious freedom previously explained have led to violent incidents in the country, both against religious leaders or religious groups, and even against places of worship, among others.
The following cases reported on the platform, illustrate the state of religious freedom in the country:
- Chapel of the Blood of Christ violently vandalized: Sympathizers of the regime threw a Molotov cocktail in the Chapel of the Blood of Christ of the Metropolitan Cathedral located in Managua – Nicaragua, causing serious damage to the image of the Blood of Christ and the Blessed Sacrament. The Archdiocese of Managua pointed out that this event represented one of the many acts that reflect hatred of the Catholic Church and its evangelizing work.
- Parish Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Wiwillí desecrated: The Diocesan Parish Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Wiwillí, Nueva Segovia, was desecrated. The perpetrators broke the tabernacle and threw the consecrated hosts on the ground. The parish priest José Iván Centeno, affirmed that the act “was disguised as robbery to hide his attacks”, referring to people linked to the Daniel Ortega regime.
- Image of Daniel Ortega painted on the walls of the Archbishop’s Curia: The walls of the Archbishop’s Curia were painted with the silhouette of President Daniel Ortega and a phrase from the ruling party: “Being a Sandinista, the greatest expression of rebellion.”
Figure 2: Violent incidents reported in Nicaragua (2018-2020)
|(Attempts) to destroy, vandalize or desecrate places of worship or religious buildings||17||9||21|
|Closed places of worship or religious buildings||0||0||0|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||16||146||3|
|Attacked houses/property of faith adherents||2||0||0|
|Attacked shops, businesses or institutions of faith adherents||1||0||0|
|Forced to leave Home||0||0||0|
|Forced to leave Country||2||2||0|
Information and/or data from previous years can be found on our Violent Incidents Database
|World Watch List, Open Doors International (2021)||Private sphere||6.9|
|Global Uptick in Government Restrictions on Religion in 2016
Pew Research Center (2018)
|Government Restrictions Index||2.1|
|Social Hostilities Index (SHI)||1.0|
|Government religious preference, Religious Characteristics of States Data Project
Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion (2015)
|Government Religious Preference composite score – preferred religion (PRFGRP)||2.4|
|Government Religious Preference composite score – non-preferred religion (NPRFGRP)||1.5|
|The Main Religion and State Dataset
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Official Religion (SAX)||No|
|Official Support (SBX)||Multi-Tiered Preferences 1: one religion is clearly preferred by state, receiving the most benefits, there exists one or more tiers of religions which receive less benefits than the preferred religion but more than some other religions.|
|Religious Discrimination Against Minority Religions (MXX)||5|
|Regulation of and Restrictions on the Majority Religion or All Religions (NXX)||8|
|Specific Types of Religious Support (LXX)||9|
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence against minority religions: General (WSOCDISX2014)||0|
|Minority actions of Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence – Against the majority religion (WMIN2MAJX2014)||0|
|Minority actions of Discrimination, harassment, acts of prejudice and violence – Against the other minority religions (WMIN2MINX2014)||0|
|Societal regulation of religion (WSOCREGX2014)||0|
|CIRI Human Rights Data Project (2011)||Freedom of religion (NEW_RELFRE)||1|
|Religion and State-Minorities Dataset
Religion and State Project, Bar-Ilan University (2014)
|Governmental Discrimination (MMXX2014)
|International Religious Freedom Data
The Association of Religion Date Archives (2008)
|Government Regulation of Religion Index (GRI_08)||0.3|
|Government Favoritism of Religion Index (GFI_08)||6.8|
|Social Regulation of Religion Index (MSRI_08)||2.1|
|Religious Freedom Rating
Hudson Institute (2007)
|Religious Freedom Scale||3|
For more data about the indicators click here.
Public Policy Recommendations
- The government should restart the dialogue process in order to agree on transparent and democratic elections, ensuring the safeguarding of the human rights of all citizens, especially those who have openly expressed their opposition to the regime, including religious leaders.
- The Nicaraguan government must stop criminalizing religious leaders for their spiritual and material accompaniment of dissidents of the regime. In this sense, it must comply with both the guidelines issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner in its various Country reports, as well as with the precautionary measures issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in favor of priests and defenders of human rights in the country.
- The Nicaraguan government should allow the operation of the Special Follow-up Mechanism for Nicaragua (Meseni) and the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) in order to guarantee and safeguard the human rights of the people, including the right to religious freedom, freedom of expression of religious leaders, and the right to conscientious objection.
- The international community should strengthen civil society organizations for the monitoring, documentation, analysis, and presentation of public reports on the situation of the right to religious freedom in Nicaragua.