MANAGUA/MASAYA, Nicaragua (Reuters) – Supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega tried to storm a church on Thursday, with a priest saying they hit churchgoers, as tension ratchets up between Roman Catholics and the government in the Central American country.
Footage posted on social media showed protesters pressing against the barricaded door of the San Juan Bautista parish church in the western city of Masaya. Parishioners had gathered for Mass, to be followed by a pilgrimage, in support of mothers in Masaya’s cathedral who are on a hunger strike.
The mothers are demanding the release of their children, detained by authorities for their part in anti-government protests.
Nicaragua’s churches have been transformed into political battlegrounds in recent weeks as protests continue to roil a country deeply divided over the leadership of Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who has waged a brutal crackdown on his opponents.
Both the Organization of American States and the United Nations raised alarms this week about human rights in Central America’s largest country, as protests have intensified.
At San Juan Bautista church, footage posted on social media showed parishioners and priests scrambling to hold back a group of Ortega supporters, pressing their bodies against the door and later stacking up pews to barricade the entrance.
The Ortega supporters ultimately forced their way in to the church, according to the priest, prompting the priest to plead with the group to let his parishioners go home safely.
“Fierce hyenas,” Father Harvin Padilla said in a sermon to churchgoers as the government supporters tried to push past the barricades, the footage showed.
“We do not follow a dictator and a madwoman,” he continued, an apparent reference to Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.
The supporters struck altar boys and churchgoers as they attempted to enter the church, Padilla said.
The Nicaraguan government did not immediately respond to a request for its version of events.
Demonstrations erupted in April 2018, when Ortega tried to cut welfare benefits, and gradually spread into a broader protest movement against his rule.
The Catholic Church tried to make peace in Nicaragua early on, mediating talks between Ortega and the opposition last year. But in recent weeks, prominent churches have been overtaken by the country’s long-running political crisis.
Earlier this week, the Church accused groups linked to the government of beating a priest and violently taking control of the cathedral in capital Managua.
“We condemn these acts of desecration, harassment and intimidation, which are not contributing to the peace and stability of the country,” the Church said in a statement.
(Reporting by Oswaldo Rivas in Masaya and Ismael Lopez in Managua; writing by Julia Love; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)