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A delegation of Catholic priests including a bishop, a cardinal and the Papal Nuncio, were attacked by armed Sandinista sympathizers in the town of Diriamba on Monday while on a mission to rescue a small group of supposed anti-government activists trapped in a church.
Reporters who witnesses the scene said the priests were attacked inside the church as they tried to protect the eight people. One priest, Silvio Baez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, was injured on the arm in the melee, as was one of the journalists.
The incidents came two days after President Daniel Ortega rejected calls for early elections as a solution to Nicaragua’s political crisis, which has seen 300 people killed by police and paramilitaries in street clashes. On Sunday 11 people were killed and 50 injured in attacks by police and paramilitaries in Carazo and Matagalpa.
Speaking late Saturday in his first public appearance in over a month, Ortega, 72, said the Central American country’s constitution sets rules that “cannot be changed overnight because of the whim of a group of coup mongers.”
Ortega also blamed those who oppose him for the killings since the onset of protests in April.
However, human rights groups say most of the dead are young protesters killed by police and often-armed civilian groups allied to Ortega’s Sandinista political movement.
“It went from zero to 60 real fast”
That was, once again, the case on Monday. “It went from zero to 60 real fast,” said Univision correspondent Tifani Roberts, who was in the church with cameraman, Xavier Sanchez and other journalists. A large group of more than 100 pro-government sympathizers, some armed with hand guns and wearing masks, were protesting outside the church before the priests arrived, chanting insults and accusing the church of arming the people.
“There was no way they were going to let them out,” she said, referring to the people in the church. In the crowd were a number of police officers, including the local police chief who did nothing to intervene and appeared to side with the armed Sandinistas.
Tensions increased when word came that a delegation of priests, including Roman Catholic Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and Papal Nuncio, archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, was on its way from Managua, with more reporters.
The Catholic bishops have been mediating on-and-off talks between the government and the opposition since the violence began in April, originally over an unpopular reform of the social security system.
More Sandinistas started gathering in the square outside the church. When the priests arrived, the crowd prevented them from entering the church through the main entrance. The priests eventually gained access by a small rear door, accompanied by some journalists.
But some of the Sandinistas also got in and started to vandalize the church looking for guns before spotting the government opponents huddled in a corner.
“They grabbed them, it was awful,” said Roberts. “The priests tried to make a cordon but they dragged some of them outside. I don’t know what happened to them after that.”
"Forgive them, for they know not what they do"
"We have been attacked," said Cardinal Brenes, who added it was the first time bishops had been physically assaulted in the country. "Forgive them because they do not know what they are doing," he added.
Journalists filming the incident inside the church were also attacked at gunpoint and had their equipment seized and video erased.
Sanchez, the Univision cameraman was briefly grabbed but managed to escape on a motorbike and took refuge at a local religious school. He was later reunited with Roberts with his video intact.
“They started to vandalize the church looking for guns.
In a homily on Sunday, Cardinal Brenes called on Ortega to stop the repression.
“Please, in the name of God, stop those action which will bring more pain, more sadness and, like it or not, this situation is being placed on your shoulders,” Brenes said.