Shaky video footage shows priests processing with the Blessed Sacrament through the low-walled streets of Sébaco. This is no ordinary day in the Nicaraguan city: a street battle is raging. As the priests walk, others join in, their heads lowered as if braced for impact. They are heading straight into the heart of conflict. The grainy film, obtained by the Catholic Herald from human rights activists in Nicaragua, then takes a disturbing turn. Gunshots ring out. But the procession still moves forward. A woman standing in a doorway breaks down as she sees the Blessed Sacrament pass by.

In another video, recorded in the same city on the same day, priests move forwards hand in hand towards a group of police with riot shields. Suddenly there is a crack of bullets. A priest flinches, but quickly gathers himself and presses ahead. A female protester screams out to the police: “You wouldn’t dare to shoot one of our priests, would you?”

The footage was filmed in May, as forces loyal to Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega clashed with demonstrators calling for his removal. A month earlier Ortega had provoked a nationwide outcry when he issued a decree increasing workers’ pension contributions, amid a worsening economic crisis. Government forces responded brutally, killing more than 20 people in the first week of protests. That number has now reached more than 300 and continues to rise.

At first, Ortega invited the Church to mediate talks between the government and the protesters: a diverse group comprising students, businessmen and farmers. But as bishops began to intervene to protect demonstrators, the president turned on them. His forces have vandalised churches and shot at protesters who sought sanctuary inside them.

Last Thursday, on the anniversary of the 1979 Nicaraguan Revolution, which Ortega helped to lead, the 72-year-old bitterly denounced the bishops. Churches, he claimed, were being used “to store weapons, to store bombs”.

“I thought they were mediators,” he said, “but no. They were committed to the coup-plotters, they were part of the plan with the coup-plotters.”

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