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Priest Describes Attack On Church In Nicaragua


In Nicaragua, hundreds of people have been killed since the government started cracking down on protesters earlier this year. The Roman Catholic Church has been trying to mediate an end to the violence, but pro-government mobs are attacking bishops and priests. We'll hear from one of those priests now. He was at a conference at the State Department this week. NPR's Michele Kelemen caught up with him.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At the department's first ever conference to promote religious freedom around the world, Vice President Mike Pence described the situation in Nicaragua this way.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: The government of Daniel Ortega is virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.

KELEMEN: Father Raul Zamora says that's no exaggeration.

RAUL ZAMORA: There was a declaration of war in the plaza the 19 of July. The president actually said it. He said that the bishops were terrorists, that they're violent and all this, you know? And we hear that from his own people also around. It's a frontal attack now against the church, the bishop and the priests.

KELEMEN: Earlier this month, Zamora was sheltering dozens of student protesters in his church in the capital, Managua. He thought it would be safer than the university, where he feared pro-government militias were preparing a massacre. But on July 13, a Friday, his Church of the Divine Mercy came under attack.

ZAMORA: Friday the 13 sounds like a horror movie, but it was actually a horror that we lived, you know, from midday until the next day until 4:30 a.m.

KELEMEN: It ended with two students dead.

ZAMORA: I heard machine guns. I heard everything - explosions, there were snipers. I know this because for a fact two students were shot in the head. So - and I had that experience - a painful experience of attending one of them, you know, before he died.

KELEMEN: Nicaragua has been in turmoil for months, and Zamora says the church is trying to promote a dialogue between the government and protesters. He worries about a refugee crisis in the making.

ZAMORA: You can see that there's an exodus right now. And it'll get worse if it's not solved soon - the situation.

KELEMEN: Zamora's own family fled war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. He grew up in Los Angeles, and though the Trump administration has sharply reduced the number of refugees it accepts, Zamora hopes Americans will have compassion.

ZAMORA: If the situation gets worse, I mean, probably a lot will take refuge or come here just like I did when I was 11 years old. And I found this nation to be an open-armed nation that received us, you know. And we experience the American people's hearts, you know, and we know that in a moment like that, people will respond with the same generosity.

KELEMEN: Neither Vice President Pence nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made any mention of refugees speaking at their conference on religious freedom this past week. Ambassador at Large Sam Brownback says delegates discussed ways to prevent refugee flows.


SAM BROWNBACK: Several spoke about the need to have religious freedom as a way to be able to have people be able to stay in their home countries.

KELEMEN: In Nicaragua, it's more about resolving a political crisis. President Ortega is refusing to move up the date of elections as protesters want, and he's blaming Catholic leaders for siding with his opponents. The U.S., meantime, is giving the U.N. money to help Nicaraguans who are fleeing to neighboring Costa Rica. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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