According to the Constitution, the State Government is republican and a representative democracy, independent, free, and sovereign. Moreover, it has established the principle of division of powers and its normative hierarchy contemplates the Constitution as the supreme basis of the entire legal system. Laws, treaties, decrees, etc. that oppose or alter its provisions, have no value.
However, over the years, the latest constitutional reforms have diminished the rule of law and allowed the indefinite reelection of the president. Currently, state institutions follow the guidelines of the Sandinista National Liberation Front SNLF, a political party inspired by the Cuban revolution and with socialist tendencies.
Freedom of conscience thought, and of professing a religion or not, is considered an individual right. Among the constitutional provisions in this regard are:
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|
General Description of the State of Religious Freedom
Democracy in Nicaragua has been deteriorating since the end of the dictatorship in 1990. This context has affected all political freedoms. Nevertheless, the social unrest unleashed in October 2018 placed additional pressure on religious freedom in the country. Protestors took to the streets due to their opposition to social security reforms, and the government respond with fierce violence. This crisis led to hundreds of deaths, injuries, exiled persons, and arbitrary detentions.
Since the beginning of the revolts that demonstrated the government’s repression and authoritarian tendencies, the Catholic Church has been one of the strongest institutions defending human rights and denouncing the government’s abuse against the demonstrators. It was even involved in the round table discussions held between the state and the opposition in order to act as 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, Catholic leaders – with a few exceptions – soon directed their efforts to accompany the people more closely without avoiding speaking up against the repressive measures of the government. Until now, the State has labeled and treated them as coup plotters, terrorists, and enemies of the State, because of the material and spiritual care and attention they have provided demonstrators and their families.
With respect to other religious groups, some Protestant Christian churches focused on personal accompaniment, with a neutral stance regarding government actions; others openly support the regime and have a close relationship with it, a situation that places them in a privileged position compared to other religious groups.
A. 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.
B. Religious restrictions from totalitarian government control
In Nicaragua, authorities have shown a desire to remain permanently in power, at the cost of democracy and the rule of law. Because of the government’s communist tendencies, features of authoritarianism, censorship, and repression can be identified. These measures are applied to anyone who questions the legitimacy or permanence of the authorities that hold power. In this scenario, religious leaders, mainly Catholics, have become targets of harassment and abuse because they constantly denounce the regime for the violation of human rights.
Given the continuous hostilities displayed towards them, such as verbal and physical violence, death threats, arbitrary arrests, surveillance, and attacks on temples of worship, even multilateral organizations, such as the Organization of American States, have not only introduced protective measures and injunctions on behalf of some of these Catholic leaders but have repeatedly called on the state to stop these practices.
The continuity of the regime is possible due to entrenched corruption. The co-optation of state institutions by the party allows oppressive actions to be carried out against the opposition with total impunity. In addition to security forces and government supporters, criminal and paramilitary groups have become the government’s brute force. It is through these groups that dissidents or opponents of the party are intimidated and silenced. In this scenario, any religious leader known or related to the opposition is harassed and/or pressured; religious activities are hampered or interrupted, and places of worship are vandalized. In general, none of those affected are able to find an instance – at least at the national level – in which such illegal actions are denounced, or the guarantee of their rights is demanded.
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:
- Paramilitaries threatened priests in Las Segovias with death: Death threats against Catholic priests have increased, as has the presence of paramilitaries inside the temples in the Las Segovias area. In almost all churches in Nueva Segovia, Madriz, and Estelí, paramilitary groups are constantly seen entering masses or other activities carried out by the priests and Catholic parishioners in these localities.
- Priest Pedro D. Obando flees the country: The priest Pedro Denis Obando, pastor of the Estelí Cathedral, left the country after receiving death threats. He was being pressured by the regime to report the Bishop and stop denouncing human rights violations in the area.
- Student leader forced to accuse bishop of coup: Edwin Carcahe said that during his stay in prison, officers beat him and threatened to force him to hold Bishop Silvio Baez responsible for protests in the country. They also wanted to force him to accuse the Episcopal Conference of having organized a coup d’etat.
Figure 2: Violent incidents reported in Nicaragua (2018-2019)
|(Attempts) to destroy, vandalize or desecrate places of worship or religious buildings||17||5|
|Closed places of worship or religious buildings||0||0|
|Other forms of attack (physical or mental abuse)||16||109|
|Attacked houses/property of faith adherents||2||1|
|Attacked shops, businesses or institutions of faith adherents||1||0|
|Forced to leave Home||0||0|
|Forced to leave Country||2||2|
Information and/or data from previous years can be found on our Violent Incidents Database
|World Watch List, Open Doors International (2020)||Private sphere||5.8|
|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.