The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion; provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship; and states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.” The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported “serious human rights violations in the context of social protests in Nicaragua” surrounding demonstrations opposing social security reforms in April, which resulted in “excessive and arbitrary use of police force,” stigmatization campaigns, and other human rights abuses. Amnesty International reported that in October the state had implemented a strategy of repression. On July 13, police killed two students and injured at least 10 others in a 15-hour attack on a Roman Catholic Church in Managua providing refuge to student protesters from a nearby university campus. Catholic leaders reported physical attacks and verbal insults, death threats, and intimidation campaigns by progovernment groups and ruling party (Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) activists associated with President Daniel Ortega and Vice President and spouse Rosario Murillo. Media reported Deputy Chief of Police Ramon Avellan physically assaulted Father Edwin Roman in Masaya on September 9, after the priest asked government supporters to turn down ruling-party propaganda music playing outside the church during a funeral service. Observers said Bishop Silvio Baez was a frequent target of government harassment because he condemned its human rights abuses. According to religious leaders and media, there were many incidents of vandalism and the desecration of sacred items in Catholic churches throughout the country. Progovernment supporters frequently disrupted religious services by playing loud music through speakers positioned outside of churches. Many religious leaders said the government politicized religion in the context of what the IACHR and other international bodies characterized as an ongoing political crisis and social conflict in the country. Religious leaders said the government retaliated against clergy perceived as critical of the government. According to religious leaders, Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders who provided shelter and medical assistance and defended human rights of peaceful protesters were routinely victims of government retribution, including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies on unfounded charges, withholding tax exemptions, reducing budget appropriations, and denying religious services for political prisoners. Catholic leaders said the government continued to use religious festivities, symbolism, and language in its laws and policies to promote its political agenda, a practice that Catholic leaders said undermined the Church’s religious integrity.
According to media, on December 5, a Russian national woman threw sulfuric acid at a priest at the Managua Metropolitan Cathedral during confession. By year’s end, the priest was still at a local hospital with burns over his entire body and a serious infection. While some civil society leaders familiar with the case stated they believed the government sent her to the church, there was no evidence linking the attack to government officials. A Jewish leader said his group’s interfaith director met regularly with Christian and Muslim counterparts as part of relationship-building efforts.
The Vice President of the United States repeatedly called on the government to cease violence and attacks on the Catholic Church and expressed the U.S. government’s support for faith communities in their fight for human rights, democracy, and freedom. U.S. embassy officials met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials to raise concerns over religious freedom in light of the country’s sociopolitical crisis. Senior U.S. government leaders and the embassy used social media to express concern over attacks on the Catholic Church and other religious groups. Additionally, embassy officials engaged like-minded members of the diplomatic corps to address concerns over religious freedom in the country. Embassy representatives met regularly with a wide variety of religious groups, including Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Moravian Lutherans, Muslims, and the Jewish community, to discuss the groups’ concerns about politicization of religion and governmental retaliation against politically active religious groups.
Section I. Religious Demography
The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.1 million (July 2018 estimate). According to the 2005 census (the most recent available), conducted by the Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Census, 59 percent of the population is Catholic and 22 percent evangelical Protestant, including Pentecostals, Mennonites, Moravian Lutherans, and Baptists. A survey conducted in June 2017 by M&R Consultants estimates Catholics compose 46 percent of the population, evangelical Protestants 33 percent, and religious believers without affiliation 14 percent. Groups that together constitute less than 4 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Moravian Lutheran Church, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers.
The Moravian Lutheran Church is largely concentrated in the country’s North and South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions. A majority of its members are of indigenous or Afro-Caribbean descent.
Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship, and it states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.” The constitution states there is no official religion; however, the law entrusts government-controlled, community-level action groups, known as Family Committees, with the responsibility for promoting “Christian values” at the community level.
The requirements for registration of religious groups – with the exception of the Catholic Church – are similar to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Registration requires an application, articles of association, and designation of officers. The National Assembly must approve a group’s application for registration or legal standing. Following approval, the group must register with the Ministry of Government as an association or NGO, which allows it to incur legal obligations, enter into contracts, or benefit from tax and customs exemptions. Following registration, religious groups are subject to the same regulations as other NGOs or associations, regardless of their religious nature. The Catholic Church as a religious group is not required to register because its presence in the country predates the legislation; however, the government requires organizations dedicated to charity or other social work affiliated with the Catholic Church to register.
Ministry of Education regulations for primary school education establish that the basis for the methodology and curriculum for elementary grade levels are the “Christian, Socialist, Solidarity” principals and “Human Development” policy. The government’s 2018-21 Human Development policy establishes the promotion of religious and faith-based festivities as a key component of all government policy.
Missionaries of all religious affiliations must obtain religious worker visas and provide information regarding the nature of their missionary work before the Ministry of Interior will authorize entry into the country. A locally based religious organization must provide documentation and request travel authorization from the Ministry of Government seven days prior to the arrival of the visiting person or religious group. The process generally takes several weeks to complete.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
On December 5, media reported a Russian national woman attacked a priest at the Managua Metropolitan Cathedral by throwing sulfuric acid at him during confession. At year’s end, the priest was still at a local hospital with burns over his entire body and a serious infection. Official media portrayed the woman as a feminist; however, local feminist organizations denounced the attack and clarified they had no affiliation with her. The Church refrained from making assumptions. Some civil society leaders familiar with the case stated they believed the government sent her; however, there was no evidence linking the attack to government officials.
A Jewish leader reported that his group’s interfaith director met regularly with Christian and Muslim counterparts as part of relationship-building efforts.
Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement
The Vice President of the United States repeatedly called on the government to cease violence and attacks on the Catholic Church and expressed the U.S. government’s support for faith communities in their fight for human rights, democracy, and freedom. U.S. embassy officials met with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials and emphasized the importance of religious freedom, including the right of religious groups and their members to participate peacefully in the public sphere in accordance with their beliefs.
On November 18, the ambassador attended Sunday Mass at Managua Metropolitan Cathedral, his first Sunday in the country. Following Mass, the ambassador stated he was honored to share Mass with the community in Managua. Media covered his attendance widely. The ambassador also attended the local festivity of Griteria in which Catholics celebrate Purisima, the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, at various churches.
Through official social media accounts, senior U.S. government leaders and the embassy expressed concerns over the maligning of and physical attacks on Catholic Church clergy and properties during the country’s sociopolitical crisis. Embassy officials met with representatives from at least six other like-minded diplomatic missions to engage on concerns over religious freedom in the country.
Embassy representatives met regularly with leaders from a wide variety of religious groups, including Catholic and a diverse selection of evangelical Protestant groups, the Moravian Lutheran Church, the Nicaraguan Islamic Association, and the Jewish community. At these meetings, embassy representatives discussed concerns about the politicization of religion, governmental retaliation against politically active religious groups, limitations to freedom of religion, and the possibility of holding interfaith working groups to promote respect for religious freedom, diversity, and tolerance.