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Church-state split over corruption
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Accusations implicate former President Arnoldo Alemán.

Nicaragua’s Catholic Church is growing increasingly incensed with President Enrique Bolaños’ government, claiming the administration is using an anti-corruption campaign to attack the hierarchy.

The relationship has gone steadily downhill since Bolaños took power in January, with the government reducing subsidies to church groups and Managua’s cardinal accusing the administration of attacking him.

In mid-May, the Nicaraguan Conference of Bishops released a document criticizing Bolaños’ anti-corruption campaign, the centerpiece of his administration.

In the document, the bishops wrote that the campaign might provoke "a thirst for vengeance, which, once started, would be unstoppable."

Corruption allegations have focused on former President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002) and a small circle of his close advisers. Ironically, Bolaños was Alemán’s vice president, and many of those implicated in the corruption scandals are fellow members of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party.

The investigations have also implicated several Catholic Church leaders who were considered strong allies of Alemán throughout his term (LP, May 20, 2002).

In February, Education Minister Silvio de Franco suspended subsidies to parochial schools and canceled a government scholarship program for teachers who studied at Nicaragua’s Catholic University.

De Franco, who identifies himself as a Catholic and a member of Opus Dei, said that the parochial schools’ poor educational quality and the ill-defined selection process for awarding the scholarships prompted the decision to withdraw government support.

In April, corruption accusations were lodged against León Bishop César Bosco Vivas. Bosco Vivas’ name appeared on a list of beneficiaries who used loans from the General Income Bureau to buy vehicles.

The bureau’s director at the time, Byron Jerez, is currently in prison, accused of misusing more than US$4 million. Bosco Vivas used the loan to buy a sport utility vehicle.

In April, new allegations emerged concerning a radio station that Alemán had used to discredit his critics, particularly Bolaños. Radio La Poderosa had been registered as belonging to the Managua Archdiocesan Social Promotion Commission (COPROSA).

Managua Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Solórzano confirmed that the church loaned the frequency to the Alemán administration. COPROSA is one of the institutions involved in a corruption scandal involving import-tax exemptions.

Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who presented his resignation to the pope last year after turning 75, accused the Bolaños administration of conspiring against him and pressuring the Vatican to remove him.

When asked about his chilly relations with the church, Bolaños said he had the support of 80 percent of the population and did not need the bishops’ backing.

Political analyst María López Vigil, editor of the monthly magazine Envío, said that the dispute in Nicaragua is a conflict between a pre-modern church and a state that is in transition.

"While in the region and the world there is a tendency to move toward churches that are more modern, more diverse, better suited to new realities, in Nicaragua there is a lack of development and a stagnation in the hierarchy. Conservatism has won all the battles here about the way the population relates to the church," she said.

In the most recent poll on religious trends in Nicaragua, 68.8 percent of the respondents said they considered themselves Catholic.

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