Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega on Wednesday called the Catholic Church a “perfect dictatorship” because it doesn’t allow its members to elect the pope and other figures of authority.

In the Church “everything is imposed. It’s a perfect dictatorship. It’s perfect tyranny,” he said, reflecting on the ongoing tensions between his government and the religious institution over the 2018 protests.

“If you want to be democratic, you should start with Catholics voting for the pope, for cardinals and for bishops,” Ortega said during a televised address marking the 43rd anniversary of the founding of the Nicaraguan police force.

The Catholic Church in Nicaragua has come under increasing pressure from the government since Ortega accused it of supporting anti-government protests in 2018. A crackdown on the demonstrators claimed hundreds of lives.

Ortega claims the protests were part of a US-backed opposition plan to unseat him and accuses the bishops of complicity.

During his speech on Wednesday, Ortega denounced bishops and priests as “murderers” and “coup plotters” working in the name of “American imperialism.”

“I would say respectfully to His Holiness the Pope to the Catholic authorities – I am a Catholic – as a Christian I do not feel represented,” he said, citing the church’s “horrible history”.

Ortega criticized issues ranging from the Inquisition in Spain and South America to the abuse of indigenous children in Canada.

“We hear (the church) talking about democracy,” he said, suggesting that believers should elect representatives to positions in church leadership.

– Rising tensions –

Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, stressed earlier this month the importance of “never ending” the dialogue with Nicaragua.

“There is a dialogue. We are talking to the government,” said the Pope. “It doesn’t mean that we approve or disapprove of everything the government does.”

In his speech on Wednesday, Ortega also criticized US Deputy Secretary of State Brian Nichols and the Chilean government, whose President Gabriel Boric recently criticized the Nicaraguan president for human rights abuses.

Earlier Wednesday, a diplomatic source said that Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada had informed EU Ambassador to Managua Bettina Muscheidt of her expulsion, although Ortega made no mention of it in his speech.

The EU and the United States have imposed sanctions on Nicaraguan officials over the past four years, citing human rights abuses.

Tensions between the Catholic Church and Nicaragua grew in March when Managua expelled the Vatican ambassador from the country.

In August, an anti-government bishop, Rolando Alvarez, was placed under house arrest for activities police described as “destabilizing and provocative,” raising concerns of Pope Francis and condemning the United States.

At least four priests and two seminarians were also arrested, but the police did not say what they were charged with.

This comes after a group of nuns were forced to leave the country in July when their order, the Missionaries of Charity, was banned.

Ortega ruled Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 after guerrillas overthrew US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza.

Since returning to power in 2007, he has become increasingly authoritarian, lifting presidential term limits.