Monsignor Juan Abelardo Mata, bishop of Estelí, 73 years old, is famous for being the most hard-line bishop of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua. He has spent all his life harshly criticizing anything remotely suggesting Marxism-Leninism. However, on the door to his office there is a photograph of Jose Mujica, ex Tupamaro guerrillero and symbol of the democratic left in Latin America.
In the photo there is a caption with the words of Mujica, saying that the upbringing of children begins at home. “A man with very deep feelings and a practical man, too”, said Mata.
The Bishop of Estelí and Secretary of the Episcopal Conference has been very ill lately, but he continues receiving the faithful into his office. Before we were received, a person had come from Managua to see him, to tell him that God had revealed to him that the people needed the Bishop.
Ordained Bishop of Estelí in 1988, Mata has never been a waverer. He says that the Government is fiendish and cynical and that the dictatorship used the nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag in the (now suspended) Second National Dialogue.
In this interview the priest denounces the selective killings in the countryside and the persecution against the Church. He also revealed why the bishops had decided not to participate in the second effort to have a national dialogue.
Nothing is normal
After 17 months of crisis in the country, ever since the beginning of the Rebellion of April, 2018, how does the Church see the situation in this country?
Hard, very hard, because they don’t want to listen. They don’t want to hear the voice of reason and the demands of the people. The government seems to be marching again towards the position it took in the 80s. A lot of confusion, a desire for change, people do not want armed violence and they have openly shown this. But there is hunger and that is clear. People are rising up without direction, there is no leadership, only the protests. Or I should say there are leaders, and that they are just beginning to emerge.
Monsignor, the Government alleges that the country has already got back to normal. What do the priests, who are closer to the people in their parishes say?
That there is nothing normal. The priests report an unstable situation. Lately the killings have not taken place in city streets, but in the mountains, selective killings and of those who have shown leadership in the people´s cry for change. There is fear. I myself have not been able to go out to the rural communities in the last 14 months.
Why is this, Monseñor?
Because of the threats.
Yes, against me and against the priests. Even some Delegates of the Word say, ‘Come!´, but most say, ‘Don’t come! There are groups of people waiting here for you, prepared to attack you.’ There are people to counterattack these groups, but I don’t want any blood shed on my behalf.’
What sort of threats are they?
What I have lived through! First of all, death threats, and I keep getting these, also threats of beating me up. And if they can’t do it to me, they do it to some priests.
You said that there have been selective killings in the rural part of the country.
That’s right, people who oppose the Government.
We have heard of selective killings in the diocese of Jinotega and Matagalpa. Has this happened here, too?
Yes, it has, in Nueva Segovia, Quilalí and Wiwili to be precise. All these places border on Jinotega.
How many people have been murdered?
In my territory there have been five that I know of, but probably there have been more than that. Lots of things are not known at the moment they happen, but leak out in time.
They are fiends, heartless
The Government says is that it was an attempted coup, financed from outside the country, and they say that you are the ones who did it; How is the Church reacting in the face of this accusation?
Just as Jesus reacted: without fear. Turn the other cheek. I will not back down, that is my position as a pastor. I am here. We are not coup-makers, that is the slander of people with a fiendish mentality. I am going to couch it in softer words, they are cynics, and what they do they blame on others in order to justify themselves. They present themselves as the saviors of the people and the great benefactors of the people, and that is cynicism.
We have spoken openly, we have called on the people to act in solidarity, as citizens to face building the country so that in the future they can inherit a more stable country. We do not condemn. Our work is to intercede. We pray, and we intensify our prayer in a particular way, for the people who are damaging the Republic and for the many people who call themselves Christians but show no hesitation in staining their hands with blood.
Is there religious freedom in Nicaragua?
No, there isn’t; false.
Do you feel the Church is being persecuted?
We do feel persecuted. Right here, in Estelí, a group of people gather to prepare a retreat, a group of Emaús, and naturally these meetings don’t take place in church, but rather in people’s houses. And then the police show up, ask for their I.D: take photos of their license plates, this is real harassment. You can’t have a meeting because the Government interprets it as an attack. But the meetings are not attacks against the government, nor is it a way to get a change of government (what we are looking for), it is a change of mentality in people, that, yes. And we are asking this of those in favor of democracy and those who aren’t.
How many priests have had to flee for their lives?
I don’t know the number, but there have been several. In my territory I helped one from Masaya, from Monimbó, to get to Honduras. I have managed to get out several more overland. About four of them in total. Regarding my priests, they are people willing to struggle, in spite of feeling they are being persecuted and accused, here they are.
Is that the reason you are known as the ‘hardest’ bishop in the Episcopal Conference?
I don’t think so. If I were hard, I would not be moved by other people’s sins. Sin pains me. It’s not just the damage done to the innocent, but the hardening of their own hearts. How is it possible that things have gone so far, that the precious name of the Lord has been used to sustain their possessions? They want to dirty the most sacred thing the people have: their faith. This hurts me.
A lack of sincerity in the Dialogues
What is the position of the NEC regarding the Government’s decisión to cancel the National Dialogue?
Our position is that as long as there is no sincere search for the truth, and as long as that man calls himself the president of Nicaragua, with his mentality and with his team of people remain the same, it is a joke. There can be no peace-building and no nation-building. Dialogue is not me doing what you want me to do, nor me making you do what I want. Rather it is finding common points of agreement with the aim of moving towards a common good. If it’s not going to be like that, we don’t believe in it.
Is that why you decided to withdraw from the Second Dialogue?
We did withdraw. We couldn’t see that there was any sincerity, and that everything was two-faced; I won’t put the riot squads out on the street, but instead the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries being a third armed group that is not contemplated in the Constitution, and the one who should put a stop to this doesn’t do so. Why? You’ll have to ask the generals (of the Nicaraguan Army) why they don’t. After all, it’s up to the Army to disarm these irregular troops.
How do you judge the role played by the Pope’s delegate (the Nuncio) in the National Dialogue?
The Nuncio goes along with the desire of the Holy Father, the Pope, that the Church should be on the front lines in the search for rebuilding the Republic of Nicaragua, from our position as priests. In our Episcopal Conference we do not think that by participating in these dialogues we will be doing something positive for the country. We are concentrating instead on doing what the Holy Father instructed us to do: If the government won’t listen to you, talk to the people. Focus your efforts on the people and this is what we have been doing, centering our work on the people. What do I think of the Nunciate? As a member of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, he has done what he wanted to do. He has not lost a chance of dealing with the Government, and in my opinion, not in an honest way, but rather, in a malicious manner. He gives in to the Government in order to sell the image that the Church and the Pope, and the organs of the Government that he has through the Nuncio are with him and are giving credence to his process of dialogue.
Do you believe that the Government is using the Nuncio?
Deep down, I do. That is my reading, and I might be wrong. But as a bishop and as a citizen I believe that.
The nuncio and the bishops
Have you, the bishops, had a chance to discuss with Monseñor Sommertag his role in the Dialogue?
Unfortunately in the last meeting of the Episcopal Conference I wasn’t there, because of my health, but I know there was a conversation regarding this matter. They haven’t reported back to me about it, though in other occasions in the past they have.
For example, in February people were being appointed for the Dialogue and the Archbishop (Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes) comes out with the Nuncio. The Archbishop stood back to receive his endorsement from the Conference, but the Conference did not give it to him, and the nuncio was there alone, carrying out the orders of his superiors I suppose. I want to believe this. Talks took place and he himself said that the whole Conference would be there, as witnesses, and not just the Nuncio, with three bishops representing the Conference.
But the Government said, ‘so-and so and so-and so-and-so, we don’t want them’, so we said ‘No’.
Who had you chosen?
No one. We hadn’t even thought about which bishops could go. There was a general feeling that we shouldn’t go.
Why do you think they transferred Monseñor Báez to Rome?
I will say it again and with the words of Monseñor Baez, not my own. We need a more pastoral Church and a less diplomatic one. I believe our cuota for diplomacy was paid for with the head of Monsignor Baez.
Here you enter into contradiction with other bishops, who choose to be more diplomatic.
Yes, of course. Naturally this is so. Look, in our Conference not everyone speaks with the same voice, nor do we all think exactly alike. There is a common horizon and within this horizon we act: each bishop works to respond to the particular needs of his congregation.
The common horizon is that the name of the Lord be known and that he be loved, the people belong to the Lord.
Why is it that in the midst of so much crisis there has been no message to the nation from the Episcopal Conference, no message of hope?
There is general agreement (he stands up and picks up from his desk a piece of paper). This paper collects the feelings of many bishops. I sent it (to the meeting of the Conference), but it seems that there wasn’t an opportunity for it to be discussed. There’s a message for 15 September 15th being prepared. We speak and have spoken from the pulpits.
There are people who think that there are divisions among the bishops and that you haven’t been able to agree on a Pastoral Letter.
Here are the efforts that are being made (and he shows the letter sent to the Conference). I don’t think there are different currents of thought; God our Father respects us as we are.
But there are bishops that give the impression of being very close to the Government…
They give the impression, that’s right, but when it comes to supporting a given position, they support it. That means that they are not deeply convinced of their own closeness to the Government. Either you are an opportunist, or you are a pastor. Some people think I am a strong Anti-Sandinista, but this is not true. (Yes, it is true) that I have never praised the positions of an ideology that is born of atheism and of Marxism-Leninism. I could never, through thought or through religious training, go into Catholicism with those ideas. It is enough to look at the genesis of communism and the reaction of the Pope to it.
According to the Church, is there any way out of the crisis in Nicaragua?
We speak as pastors, we are conscious of the power of prayer, the power of the sanctity of families. There is where changes in the country are going to come from.
And the protests?
Naturally the people have to express themselves. It is a natural right; it is not because of the benevolence of the State. It is the right of people to show what they think, and no one is authorized to drown out their voice.