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Sandinistas mend fences with Catholic leaders
Paul Jeffrey
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Anniversary of Sandinista revolution celebrated in a spirit of reconciliation.

After 24 years of mutual distrust and violent squabbles, leaders of Nicaragua’s Catholic Church and the country’s Sandinista National Liberation Front have embarked on a new relationship. Former President Daniel Ortega has asked the church’s forgiveness, and a top Catholic official blessed a July 19 celebration marking the anniversary of the 1979 triumph of the Sandinista revolution.

"We ask the Lord to help all Nicaraguans, reconciled and sharing an embrace of peace, construct a new future, forgetting the past and looking to the present. You who are the Lord of history, we ask that you bless Nicaragua and bless all the Nicaraguans. So be it," declared Msgr. Eddy Montenegro, the vicar of the archdiocese of Managua, before tens of thousands of Sandinista loyalists gathered in Managua for the annual celebration.

It was the first appearance of a top church leader since July 19, 1979, when Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo appeared in the city’s central plaza to bless the victory of the revolutionary Sandinistas over the US-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza.

From then on, it was all downhill for church-state relations. During the decade of Sandinista rule, the relationship between the Sandinistas and several church leaders, especially Obando y Bravo, was marked by mutual accusations and acrimony. The Sandinistas expelled a bishop and temporarily closed a church radio station. Obando y Bravo, who was made a cardinal in 1985, openly supported the US-funded Contra rebels waging a bloody war against the Sandinista government.

Ortega asked the bishops for forgiveness during his speech at the July 19 celebration this year. "I have to admit that we committed errors and we ask forgiveness of the Catholic Church and its bishops. If we committed errors it was because of our deep love for Nicaragua and the defense of our country’s sovereignty, and our profound love for the poor, the peasants and the dispossessed," Ortega said.

A spokesperson for the papal nuncio in Managua said Ortega’s request for forgiveness would be passed on to the Vatican.

Ortega had visited Obando y Bravo the day before the ceremony and invited him to attend. The cardinal declined and delegated Montenegro to appear in his place.

Montenegro was seated on the podium beside Tomás Borge, the Sandinista commander who managed the country’s internal security system during the 1980s. Borge declared that relations between the Sandinistas and the Catholic hierarchy "are better than yesterday, and tomorrow they will be better than today."

The Sandinistas lost power in the 1990 elections, and Ortega, the party’s perennial presidential candidate, lost two later contests. He is considering yet another run for office, and party officials recognize that lingering tensions with church leaders continue to plague the campaign. The public reconciliation on July 19 is already seen as a boost for Ortega’s candidacy.

"They are very aware that the church’s role in the last elections was decisive and of great importance in contributing to their defeat," said Jaime Morales Carazo, a Liberal Party member of the National Assembly.

Asked by reporters if his blessing of the Sandinista gathering was playing into the hands of Ortega’s campaign, Montenegro responded, "I don’t think the real intention of the Sandinista Front is to utilize us, but if they do utilize us, and do in pursuit of the common good, then blessed be their utilization of us if it’s going to benefit the nation."




Msgr. Eddy Montenegro with Tom
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