Bishop Alvarez (C: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Persecution of Catholics in Nicaragua escalates 

The crackdown on Catholics in Nicaragua is worsening, pushing the central American country into the top 50 of the World Watch List for the first time. The annual report prepared and published by Open Doors ranks the 50 countries where it is most difficult to profess and practise Christianity. 

Despite little Western coverage, the hostility facing Christians, particularly those in the Catholic Church, has accelerated, with reports detailing how a wave of government attacks on church leaders has extinguished the last independent voice in the nation, which is bordered by Honduras to the North, and the Caribbean to the east.

One Catholic Bishop was this month ordered to face trial accused of “conspiracy” and the “propagation of fake news” against the regime. Nicaraguan prelate of the Catholic Church, Bishop Rolando Álvarez, has been held under house arrest by the dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, since August 2022.

The Bishop has been one of the most vocal critics of the dictatorial regime of Daniel Ortega, who has ruled Nicaragua for more than 15 years after being reelected in 2007.

As reported by Vatican News, following an increase in government hostility, Bishop Álvarez was arrested in the early hours of 19 August 2022, when officers forced entry into the Bishopric of Matagalpa. He was taken along with other people, including priests, deacons, seminarians, and a layman. The Bishop was later placed under house arrest, while the other people arrested were sent to the Directorate of Judicial Assistance, Vatican News reported.

According to the official communiqué published by police after the abduction, the operation was conducted “in accordance with constitutional duties in regard to the security, good order and peace of Nicaraguan families”.

Along with the incarceration of the Bishop and the arrest and exile of multiple priests, the dictatorship has also expelled Mother Teresa’s Order of nuns, the Missionaries of Charity, from the country, as well as the apostolic nuncio. There has been a recent exodus of newly ordained priests in the country where the Church is suffering the onslaught of Ortega’s government.

Several Catholic media outlets have also been forced to close under Ortega’s dictatorship, among them the channel of the Episcopal Conference. 

The troubling situation was highlighted by the Pope a couple of days later. After the Angelus prayer on 21 August, Pope Francis expressed concern about the situation in Nicaragua, which he said “affects people and institutions”. He added that it was his desire that “through an open and sincere dialogue, the foundations for a respectful and peaceful coexistence can still be found”.

Concluding his appeal, he prayed, “through the intercession of the Most Holy Virgin, to inspire in the hearts of all the parties this concrete will.” 

In December, President Ortega blasted the Catholic Church, accusing it of “calling for bloodshed,” and declaring, “I never had respect for the bishops.”

The Sandinista dictator made the statement on 19 December 2022 during the 25th commencement for graduates in police sciences from the Walter Mendoza Martínez Police Academy.

He said: “I never had respect for the bishops, I couldn’t believe in the bishops, in some priests, and in that approach there were exceptions of priests who practiced Christianity like Gaspar García Laviana, who without being Nicaraguan had more commitment to the people”.

Laviana was a Spanish priest and guerrilla fighter, who, influenced by liberation theology, took up arms and participated in the communist Sandinista revolution in the 1970s.

Ortego, a baptised Catholic, said that while he was raised “in a Catholic, Christian family” he  “learned over time that at the end of the day, behind a cassock is a human being. The cassock doesn’t make anyone a saint, the habit doesn’t make the monk.”

Recalling the 2018 protests that called for his removal from power, he referred to intervention from police in the town of Masaya, where the regime also attacked the Catholic Church on multiple occasions.

“They thought that the police were defeated and the attacks were in different quarters every day, and they came out of some churches, not all the churches, but some churches where the Pharisees were, the whitewashed tombs, from those churches they came out and from an apartment where some priests even openly came out wearing the cassock, exploiting the blood, calling for bloodshed,” the president said.

Solidarity has been expressed worldwide, with various Episcopal Conferences of Latin America, the Caribbean, and in other countries, as well as civil organisations, issuing statements and sending letters to the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference.

Aid to the Church in Need, an international Catholic pastoral aid organisation, has described the situation in the country as “sad and painful” for the clergy and the whole Church, as it invited people to “pray for peace and stand in solidarity with the Christians of the country”

“Nicaragua continues to be convulsed by the crisis that began more than four years ago. The situation in this Central American country is critical, with great polarisation and confrontation. We believe that prayer is more important than ever at this time,”  Regina Lynch, ACN’s international projects director said in a statement.

The United Nations has also condemned attacks on democracy and the Church in the nation. Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, through his spokesman Farhan Haq, has expressed concern over the actions taken by the Nicaraguan government against civil society organisations, including the Catholic Church.

Haq reiterated Guterres’ call on the country’s government “to ensure the protection of the human rights of all citizens, in particular the universal rights to peaceful assembly and freedoms of association, thought, conscience and religion, and to release all persons arbitrarily detained”.

Under the dictatorship of Ortega, the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has seen close to 400 attacks in the last four years, according to a recent study, ‘Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church?’

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