Religion debate raised anew in Nicaragua campaign

Managua, Nicaragua - Religious processions and chants have become common at the re-election campaign rallies of leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who is highlighting his Christianity in his bid for re-election.

The image put forth by Ortega's Sandinista Party has dismayed Roman Catholic Church officials, who say the leader's spirituality is a ploy to deceive Nicaraguans who will elect a president in November.

"It's legal, legal, legal," Ortega said at a recent rally when addressing criticism that he is running a campaign tinged with religion. "No one can ban us from using the word Christian. No one. The Vatican hasn't said a word about it."

Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla who led the leftist Sandinista movement starting in the 1970s, is running for a third term as president, his second consecutive one for the Central American nation.

Nicaraguans are used to the mix of politics and religion from the revolutionary era, when some priests were involved in the insurgency that eventually overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza, or at least supported its ideals.

With the campaign slogan "Christian, Socialist and In Solidarity," Ortega is taking a new swing in his up-and-down relations with the Catholic Church.

Ortega was never publicly seen attending Mass during his socialist government elected in the 1980s. During that time, the Sandinistas attracted the support of many priests who embraced a left-leaning version of liberation theology. But relations with other clerics, including the late Pope John Paul II, remained prickly.

Then Ortega upset leftist supporters by refusing to oppose a church-supported ban on all abortions that was approved by Nicaraguan lawmakers in October 2006, just 10 days before he was elected to his second run as president. That decision earned Ortega praise from Catholic and evangelical leaders, and analysts say it helped him get votes.

Yet despite that act and the addition of religious symbolism to the campaign, Ortega still has a strained relationship with much of the Catholic hierarchy in Nicaragua. Some Catholic leaders whom he alienated during his socialist government of the 1980s remain unconvinced by the religious overtones adopted by his party.

Bishop Abelardo Mata, one of Ortega's most outspoken critics, said the Sandinistas use pseudo-revolutionary language laced with religious touches for the sole purpose of deceiving people.

"The use of biblical words and church symbols is in bad taste," Mata said. "They are messing around with religion and the Christian faith."

Ortega says he found his Christian faith in 2005, when he married his current wife and first lady, Rosario Murillo, in a Catholic ceremony. Since then, Ortega and Murillo are often seen receiving communion at Catholic masses, and Ortega has been so intent on showing his Catholic faith he peppers his speeches with references to God.

But Murillo, who is also the presidential spokeswoman, enraged church leaders last month when she compared a rally to celebrate the Sandinista Party's 32nd anniversary of its 1979 rise to power after toppling Somoza with a Catholic mass.

"May God forgive me if I offend someone ... but we're holding a revolutionary Mass. We will sing, we will fill ourselves with the God of the poor, with the love of our neighbors. For God is everywhere," Murillo said on the eve of the huge gathering July 19 at the Plaza of the Faith of Pope John Paul II in Managua.

During the event, lights reflected a chalice-like image on the stage where special guests included one of the church leaders who supports him, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. His closeness to the governing party has been criticized by some church officials and the opposition and it marks a turnaround from the revolutionary era.

In the 1980s, Obando y Bravo was a critic of the "Sandinista revolution" and accused two popular Catholic priests who supported Ortega of openly going against the church hierarchy.

Now, the cardinal is the Ortega-appointed chairman of the government's Commission of Verification, Reconciliation, Peace and Justice. He is often present at Sandinista events, and Ortega and Murillo often attend his Masses.

Obando y Bravo recently said his commitment to the government is not "on behalf" of the church leadership. "I am clear that this institution has its own point of view," he added.

Ernesto Cardenal, a priest and poet, has taken an opposite turn to the cardinal's. In the 1980s, he was sanctioned by the Vatican for his involvement with the Sandinistas and harshly criticized by Obando y Bravo. Now Cardenal criticizes the religious expressions of Ortega's campaign, calling it "one more of his charades."

Ortega "makes a false and hypocritical use of religion, pretending he has a faith he doesn't have," Cardenal told The Associated Press.

Author Sergio Ramirez, who was Ortega's vice president in the 1980s but is now a critic of Ortega and the Sandinistas, said the president and the party "are trying to invent a Catholic past they never had ... They were all atheists and not Christians."

Raul Obregon, director of the polling firm M&R, said the use of Christian symbols and phrases has no major impact on voters in Nicaragua, despite the fact that 58.5 percent of the 5.5 million Nicaraguans declared themselves Catholics in the last census in 2005.

But Obregon said that having Obando y Bravo's support does help the Sandinistas because the cardinal is a strong public figure who has led the church for more than 30 years.

A recent CID-Gallup poll said Ortega is leading going into the Nov. 6 presidential vote, with 41 percent of likely voters voicing support for him. The Liberal Constitutional Party's candidate, Fabio Gadea, got 34 percent support and former president Arnoldo Aleman was third at 11 percent.

The poll of 1,000 Nicaraguans nationwide was taken between July 27 and Aug. 3 and had a margin of error of three percentage points.