What the Managua archdiocese and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes had called a terrorist attack, the police said was the result of vapor from disinfectant alcohol ignited by a candle inside a chapel holding a sculpture of Christ nearly four centuries old.
The police investigation's conclusion was close to what Vice President Rosario Murillo announced within hours of the fire Friday. According to Murillo a fire had occurred because “our people are very devoted” and there were a lot of candles and a curtain caught fire.
That however had been quickly discarded by Brenes, who visiting the site Friday had said, “Our chapel doesn’t have curtains and there are no candles." The police investigation said rugs had been ignited. Brenes said a “bomb” had been tossed into the chapel.
The incident drew the attention of Pope Francis who prayed for Nicaragua Sunday and referred to the fire as an “attack.” “I am thinking about the people of Nicaragua who are suffering due to the attack on the Cathedral of Managua," he said.
On Monday, before the police announced the conclusion of their investigation, Francis' envoy to Nicaragua said he had requested a thorough investigation. “We feel deep sadness and astonishment,” Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag.
The National Police, citing witnesses and analysis, said the fire was accidental and not the result of a criminal attack. They said it appeared that a spray bottle of alcohol used to disinfect visitors' hands had released highly flammable vapors that rose to the ceiling of the chapel then descended and were ignited by a candle.
However, the archdiocese said an unidentified person had tossed a “bomb” inside the chapel. A sculpture of Christ on the cross that dates to 1638 was badly charred. The church did not immediately respond to the police investigation.
Nicaragua's Permanent Commission on Human Rights, a nongovernmental organization, called for an independent investigation of the incident, “hiring an expert to determine the real cause of this fire.” Sommertag has played a role in trying to mediate the ongoing conflict between President Daniel Ortega and the opposition since protests broke out in April 2018. There have been a number of attacks on churches and clergy since that time.
On Monday, the Granada Diocese announced that woman had entered a church in Altagracia-Isla de Ometepe municipality and violently defaced a figure. On Sunday, in the western city of Leon, a man entered a church in the middle of Mass and threw objects that shattered a glass case and just missed a priest. Other churches have reported graffiti and harassment.
“These are criminal acts motivated by hate and division sadly deeply seated in a great part of Nicaraguan society,” Sommertag said. The recent spate of incidents follows the archdiocese announcement in mid-July of the cancelation of the annual celebrations for Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the capital’s patron saint. The archdiocese normally collaborates with the city government on the August festivities that bring tens of thousands of faithful out for massive parades, but the church said it would not participate because of the pandemic.
Others have speculated the aggression toward the church is an attempt to distract from the pandemic’s spread. Ortega has resisted imposing or recommending the social distancing measures taken elsewhere in the world and the Pan-American Health Organization has criticized its lack of action and transparency.
The church has become a target for Ortega's supporters before. When protests against changes to Nicaragua’s social security system began in April 2018 and expanded nationwide to a general call for Ortega to step down, the president invited the Roman Catholic Church to mediate. When the dialogue quickly broke down, Ortega accused the church of working with those who called for his removal.
The situation between the government and the church grew especially tense in July 2018. On July 9, 2018, Brenes led a delegation, including Sommertag, to the basilica in Diriamba, south of Managua. Doctors and nurses were treating wounded protesters inside and it was surrounded by pro-government supporters. When the delegation arrived, the mob pushed, scratched and shouted profanities at the clergy. They were eventually able to evacuate people from the church.
A few days later, armed government backers fired on the Jesus of Divine Mercy church in Managua for hours while 155 student protesters who had fled from a nearby university lay under the pews. A student who was shot in the head at a barricade outside died on the rectory floor. The church was covered in bullet impacts.