MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — An arson attack on Managua’s cathedral has drawn the attention of Pope Francis and the Vatican after Nicaragua’s vice president initially dismissed it as an accidental fire.
The Vatican’s top diplomatic envoy in Nicaragua said Monday that he had requested the Nicaraguan government ensure a “serious, careful and transparent investigation” into the attack on the capital’s cathedral.
“We feel deep sadness and astonishment,” Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag said of Friday’s attack that badly burned a chapel at Managua’s Metropolitan Cathedral, including a sculpture of Jesus Christ.
On Sunday, Francis prayed for Nicaragua. “I am thinking about the people of Nicaragua who are suffering due to the attack on the Cathedral of Managua.”
Shortly after the incident Friday, Nicaragua Vice President Rosario Murillo said that a fire had occurred because “our people are very devoted” and there were a lot of candles and a curtain caught fire.
However, the archdiocese said an unidentified person had tossed a “bomb” inside the chapel.
Archbishop of Managua Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, visiting the site Friday, said “these are acts of terrorism, a powerful bomb, the image was charred.”
Brenes directly refuted Murillo’s suggestion of an accidental fire. “Our chapel doesn’t have curtains and there are no candles,” he said.
Sommertag has played a role in trying to mediate the ongoing conflict between President Daniel Ortega and the opposition since protests broke out in April 2018. There have been a number of attacks on churches and clergy since that time.
On Sunday, in the western city of Leon, a man entered a church in the middle of Mass and threw objects that shattered a glass case and just missed a priest. Other churches have reported graffiti and harassment.
“These are criminal acts motivated by hate and division sadly deeply seated in a great part of Nicaraguan society,” Sommertag said.
The recent spate of incidents follows the archdiocese announcement in mid-July of the cancelation of the annual celebrations for Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the capital’s patron saint. The archdiocese normally collaborates with the city government on the August festivities that bring tens of thousands of faithful out for massive parades, but the church said it would not participate because of the pandemic.
Others have speculated the aggression toward the church is an attempt to distract from the pandemic’s spread. Ortega has resisted imposing or recommending the social distancing measures taken elsewhere in the world and the Pan-American Health Organization has criticized its lack of action and transparency.
The church has become a target for Ortega's supporters before.
When protests against changes to Nicaragua’s social security system began in April 2018 and expanded nationwide to a general call for Ortega to step down, the president invited the Roman Catholic Church to mediate. When the dialogue quickly broke down, Ortega accused the church of working with those who called for his removal.
The situation between the government and the church grew especially tense in July 2018.
On July 9, 2018, Brenes led a delegation, including Sommertag, to the basilica in Diriamba, south of Managua. Doctors and nurses were treating wounded protesters inside and it was surrounded by pro-government supporters. When the delegation arrived, the mob pushed, scratched and shouted profanities at the clergy. They were eventually able to evacuate people from the church.
A few days later, armed government backers fired on the Jesus of Divine Mercy church in Managua for hours while 155 student protesters who had fled from a nearby university lay under the pews. A student who was shot in the head at a barricade outside died on the rectory floor. The church was covered in bullet impacts.