Persecution of Protestants in Nicaragua: The Neglected Story

Although many people have awakened to the fact that the Sandinista’s revolutionary government have been mistreating religious leaders in Nicaragua, much of the attention has been focused on the conflict between the state and the Catholic Church, with only scant attention given to the grave events affecting the Protestant churches and other religious denominations.

Yet, the government attacks against a variety of non- Catholic groups have been harsher than those against the Catholics. The attacks have been more open, thorough, and started much earlier.

One reason for this neglect may be the fact that non- Catholic denominations are a minority — (10% of the population) fragmented in a variety of denominations that act independently of each other.

But there are two additional factors, that have played a decisive role in obscuring the facts. One is the confusion about the true nature of the Sandinistas. Although the Sandinistas showed their unequivocal Marxist-Leninist training from the start, they never declared themselves as such. Instead they sought to portray themselves as new revolutionaries who welcomed Christians among their ranks and were respectful of all religious beliefs.

The other factor is the great doctrinary confusion that today plagues most Christian churches in the world. Many Christians supported the Sandinistas in the beginning because they believed what the Sandinistas were saying. Others, however, sided with the Sandinistas, knowing that they were Marxist. The latter were Christians greatly affected by liberation theology, a trend of thought supportive of Marxism-Leninism which has made significant inroads in Catholic and Protestant churches. Among Protestants the most outstanding representative of this has been CEPAD, a well funded, evangelical organization that began editing books and pamphlets that preached Marxism and portrayed the Cuban revolution as the model to be followed. These groups have been campaigning in and out of Nicaragua on behalf of the Sandinistas, creating much confusion among Christians abroad.

It was not until 1982, as the clashes against Catholics stirred up unprecedented protests against the Sandinistas, both in and out of Nicaragua, that it became known that they were also attacking Protestants and other religious organizations. Yet, the persecution of Protestants had started long ago.

The first denominations to experience the weight of the Sandinista’s repression were the Moravians working on the Nicaraguan East Coast. Early, in the middle of the last century, they had evangelized the inhabitants of this remote area, separated from the Western part of the country by swampy, almost impassable lands.

Former Nicaraguan governments, based on the Pacific neglected the Atlantic Coast region. The Moravian missionaries filled the gap by providing most of the schools, hospitals, and support organizations that maintained the area. When the Sandinistas came into power in 1979 they immediately announced that their top priority was to “rescue” the Atlantic Coast. They strove to reshape the lives and patterns of thought of all Nicaraguans along their lines of ideological thinking and started to replace the people’s own leaders with their own authorities — many of whom were Cuban teachers and strangers. Frictions and resentments began to pile up until riots took place in the mid-1980’s. The Sandinistas blamed the events on counter¬revolutionary and CIA inspired forces, and began attacking the most influential Moravian pastors. Some of them were jailed and others expelled, stimulating new waves of protest and repression. Travel between the East Coast and the West Coast was restricted and soon the Nicaraguan government banned from publication any news dealing with the Region.

Press censorship and the isolation of the Atlantic region allowed the government to act more freely. It stepped up its attacks and dismantled the network of charitable organizations that, after a century of work, the Moravians had established. In February 1981, when Sandinista troops wanted to arrest a Moravian leader inside a church in the coastal town of Prinzapolka, a clash with the population ensured, leaving four soldiers and four natives dead. The government had to acknowledge the incident.

According to a report released by the Board of World Mission of The Moravian Church (August 1982), reliable sources indicated that many Miskito Indians, including Moravian clergy and lay leaders, had been killed or arrested. [Memorandum from The Board of World Mission of the Moravian Church. Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. August 31. 1982.]

In January 1982, two important Moravian pastors, the Revs. Fernando Colomens and Norman Bent, were expelled from the Atlantic Coast. In July the Rev. Santos Cleban was arrested and held in confinement from July 11 through the 25th. The same report also refers to the May closing of CASIM (The Nicaraguan Moravian Social Action Committee) which sponsored health, education, and development programs from 1976 until last January, when its director, the Reverend Bent, was exiled to Managua. Some of the CASIM property was unlawfully confiscated and since early July all religious workers in the northeastern town have been required to check in twice a day with security officials. [Ibid.]

Edgard Macias, former Vice-Minister of Labor of the Sandinista government who resigned in May 1982, called the persecution of the Protestant denominations in the Atlantic “a tragedy for this Nicaraguan sector, for centuries abandoned by all the Nicaraguan governments and that had just reached a minimum standard of life thanks to the social programs of their churches, carried out by pastors from Nicaragua, North America, and other countries.” [Edgard Macias Gomez, “Revolucion Sandinista y Religion,” San Jose, Costa Rica, July 19, 1982, p. 5. (mimeographed paper).] According to Macias’ estimates, by the middle of 1982 the Sandinista troops had destroyed at least 55 churches in that part of Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas excused their actions against the Moravians on the grounds that they had stirred up revolt in the Atlantic Coast. They have disclaimed such charges — with no avail. The 1982 report of the Moravian Church talks of church leaders who “are trying to persuade government officials that their generalized suspicion of the Moravian Church is misplaced. So far, however, their efforts to meet directly with members of the governing junta have been unsuccessful.”

In the Pacific area overt actions against Protestants took more time to evolve. Isolated events, however, gave some hints as to how the Sandinistas were going to act. In the second half of 1981 Morris Cerullo, an evangelical pastor who landed in Managua in order to stage a brief round of evangelistic meetings was immediately expelled by the Nicaraguan authorities. The only explanation the government gave was that Rev. Cerullo had links with the CIA and that his trip to Nicaragua was part of a wider plan to undermine the revolution. The Sandinistas did not provide documented evidence for their accusations. Nor did they allow the victims a hearing or the right to defend themselves from any charges.

In 1981, aside from the harassments of some village pastors, almost no news of persecution surfaced. The Protestant pastors as well as the leaders of other non- Catholic denominations were conscious of their vulnerability and tried to abstain from any kind of commentaries touching the political field. Some of them even preferred to reassure the government of their loyalty.

From time to time, though, leaflets published by “revolutionary Christians” would attack a denomination (for example, the 7th Day Adventists) portraying them as Uncle Sam’s puppets, clever instruments of U.S. imperialism engaged in “ideological diversionism”. The government mass media often propagated this kind of accusations.

In 1982 the attacks became direct. In March, just a few days before the government cancelled all individual rights and decreed a state of emergency, Barricada, the official newspaper of the Sandinistas, published two front-page, 8- column reports, on the Protestants, entitled: “The invasion of the Sects.” In that Report most Protestant churches were portrayed as groups of fanatics and superstitious people who liked to manipulate people’s emotions and were part of a world-wide strategy of cultural penetration orchestrated by U.S. imperialists.

Shortly after these publications the attacks grew more vocal and the first physical threats were issued. Commander Tomas Borge, the Minister of Interior, said in a television speech that many sects were spreading superstitious beliefs and trying to undermine the revolution. He said that there would be religious freedom for those who were with the revolution but for those who were deceiving people and preaching negative attitudes their days had been numbered.

Something similar was said by Commander Rene Nunez, the leading national directorate, in a widely publicized speech.

In August, following renewed attacks from Borge, Sandinista mobs went to the streets to forcefully take over several Protestant churches and facilities. A variety of religious groups including evangelicals, Mormons, Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Moravians, were affected.

In a single night 20 centers were occupied by the Sandinistas who said they would turn them into CDB’s (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), a partisan organization that the government is promoting in all neighborhoods in order to better control the whereabouts of the residents.

The unlawful occupation of these Centers was portrayed in the Sandinista’s newspaper Barricada as an act of defense of the Revolution. Again, the standard accusation was made: that these sects had relationships with the CIA and were engaged in counter-revolutionary activities. As usual, the government did not provide any evidence for the charges and prohibited the newspaper La Prensa, from publishing the letters of self-defense that these groups wrote.

Confronted with these events, CEPAD did not speak against the Sandinista’s actions, but said, quoting its director Sixto Ulloa, that “some of the sects were at odds with the revolution and therefore the masses had acted.”


  • Humberto Belli

    Humberto Belli was in charge of the editorial page of La Prensa for two years. He now lives in the United States and works with the Secretariat for Non Believers.

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