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Nicaraguans celebrate Easter processions despite Church ban

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Masatepe (Nicaragua) (AFP)

With no concern for social distancing, hundreds of Nicaraguans dressed in costumes converged on the southern city of Masatepe to catch and drag "Judas" through the streets.

The procession -- an Easter tradition -- was promoted by the government of President Daniel Ortega despite the Catholic Church suspending festivities to thwart the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

"This pandemic is dangerous but we're doing it for tradition even though the church decided not to put on the holy procession," Pedro Moraga told AFP during the street festival known as "Judea of Masatepe," a city just south of the capital Managua.

Others, like Elian Velazquez, said they were flouting the church's advice "to avoid losing" the tradition.

Every Good Friday, when the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is remembered, hundreds of colorfully costumed faithful come out in Masatepe to catch "Judas" -- Judas Iscariot who, according to the biblical gospels, betrayed Jesus and set in motion the circumstances that led to his crucifixion.

A group of parishioners dressed in white caught a "Judas" and tied up his hands and feet, dragging him to the churchyard where they threw him up in the air to teach him a lesson.

In another part of the city a man dressed as Jesus and carrying a huge cross was surrounded by his executioners, recreating his death.

Many watched the festivities from their homes, wary of catching the virus and suspicious about the country's official COVID-19 figures: just nine cases and one death.

Edwin Roman, a priest at the San Miguel de Masaya church, told AFP the government is promoting such activities to "give the impression of normality" in the country.

- 'Reckless, irrational faith' -

This procession is one of numerous religious and leisure activities encouraged by authorities during the Catholic Holy Week, in stark opposition to social isolation measures recommended by the World Health Organization to try to stop the spread of a pandemic that has claimed 107,000 lives worldwide and sickened more than 1.7 million.

"The lack of social distancing and calling of mass gatherings worries us," Carissa Etienne, the Pan-American Health Organization director has said.

"We're worried about the tests, traceability of contacts and notification of cases."

But the vice-president and first lady, Rosario Murillo, insists Nicaragua "is living in peace" and celebrating "the sacrifice of Jesus Christ who fought for justice."

While most of Latin America and the world has been under lockdown for weeks, with schools and businesses closed, Nicaragua's authorities have been promoting beauty pageants, gastronomical contests, concerts, fairs and visits to the seaside.

"Authentic widespread piety cannot ignore common sense, prudence and the use of reason," Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the archbishop of Managua, warned recently as he ordered churches closed.

"We should not expose ourselves to the outbreak and challenge the pandemic with reckless and irrational faith."

- 'Political tricks' -

The government's failure to heed this warning highlighted the open conflict between the leftist Ortega administration and the Catholic Church since a wave of anti-regime protests in 2018 that were brutally suppressed by the government.

Ortega has accused Catholic bishops of being "putschists" for giving refuge to wounded demonstrators during protests that, according to rights groups, left at least 328 people dead.

"They (the government) are driving the religious discourse not out of respect for the people but to pull at its heartstrings to hold on to power," Abelardo Mata, the secretary of the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference, told AFP.

But the "true believer knows about these political tricks and they don't approve of this abuse of power," added Mata, a harsh critic of the regime.

Despite the official line, thousands of Nicaraguans chose to stay home.

For his part, Ortega has not appeared in public for almost a month.

"Ortega is paralyzed, sheltering in his house due to his ineptitude and contempt for people's lives in encouraging big gatherings," analyst Oscar Vargas said on Twitter.

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