The Travails of the Nicaraguan Church

“Let them be free, I will serve their sentences,” said Bishop Rolando Álvarez when offered the chance to be exiled to the US alongside 222 other Nicaraguan political prisoners.

A day later, he was sentenced to 26 years in prison.

Most people in the West know that the Catholic Church is suffering bewildering levels of persecution in many countries such as China or Nigeria. However, many are unaware of what is happening here in the Western hemisphere, not far away from the United States, in Nicaragua. Persecution against the Church is reaching levels that might remind us of the worst days of the Communist regimes during the Cold War, or of the anti-clerical liberal regimes of the nineteenth century.

On February 9, three priests, two seminarians, a deacon, and a layman were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Their alleged crimes? Conspiracy against the Nicaraguan state and propagation of fake news. In reality, all they did was accompany their bishop while he was trapped in his residency. The Nicaraguan dictatorship did not allow him to leave it to celebrate a Mass in protest against the human rights abuses in the country on August 4, 2022.

Fifteen days later, all but Álvarez were taken to El Chipote, a prison known for being a torture center for political prisoners. Álvarez was placed under house arrest.

Ruled by Daniel Ortega, a former far-left guerrilla member turned dictator, Nicaragua, since 2006, has become the epicenter of the worst case of open persecution against the Catholic Church by a western government in the twenty-first century.

Just last year, the nuncio (the papal ambassador) was kicked out of the country, as were the Missionaries of Charity, the religious congregation founded by Mother Theresa. Eight priests, three laypeople who worked for a diocese, two seminarians, and a deacon have been imprisoned, most under the pretext of “conspiracy,” some others under charges of abuse that seem flimsy even to the most liberal activists in Nicaragua, who have decried the influence of Nicaragua’s kangaroo courts.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of the small, rural diocese of Matagalpa, has become the face of the persecution in the country—and an icon of resistance against Ortega. His pictures kneeling with the Blessed Sacrament in hand, while surrounded by police officers in front of the curial building, have become the symbol of the Catholic struggle in Nicaragua.

But how did things get to this point?

The Sandinistas first came to power in 1979 after a two-decade-long civil war and four decades of the Somoza family dictatorship. Ortega’s first presidency was marked by the conflict against the Contras that took the lives of 30,000 people in 10 years. Ortega would lose the election in 1990, but would win again in 2006. Sadly, he learned his lesson. He forcibly closed free media outlets, or had family members and close allies acquire them, persecuted potential opposition candidates, changed the Constitution to enable his indefinite reelection, and packed the Supreme Court. When people got tired of him and protested in large numbers against his regime in 2018–19, hundreds were killed, and thousands were injured, tortured, and exiled. 

The Church quickly became a scapegoat, as had happened in the 80s. There were significant tensions between the Church hierarchy and a part of the Nicaraguan clergy that favored the Sandinista revolution. Nicaragua was, and still is, a deeply Catholic country. But it was also largely rural, and poor.

This made it the perfect laboratory for liberation theology, a strange mashup of Marxism and Christianity, which had become a significant force in Latin America. An important number of priests and laypeople in Nicaragua supported it, and thus the Sandinista revolution had religious undertones. Priests such as Ernesto and Fernando Cardenal, Miguel D’Escoto, and Edgard Parrales were part of Ortega’s cabinet and fervent defenders of the Sandinista “revolution.” All were eventually suspended by Pope John Paul II in 1984.

The Church became one of the last bastions of freedom in Nicaragua. Priests never kept their mouths shut regarding the injustices they saw daily. They preached the Gospel, and they became enemies of the regime.

Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, then-archbishop of Managua, was one of the best-known opponents to the Sandinistas, though he had certainly been no friend of the Somozas before. He resisted the attempt to expand the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense (Nicaraguan Peasant’s Mass), a Sandinista-influenced album of songs intended to be used in Mass. Tensions quickly rose. Fr. Bismarck Carballo, one of Obando’s closest collaborators, was arrested and thrown naked on the street in 1982, which was the beginning of the persecution of priests in Nicaragua. Ten foreign priests were expelled from the country in 1984, while many local priests were accused of conspiracy, and Bishop Pablo Vega of Juigalpa was kicked out of the country in 1986 for allegedly supporting the Contras.

By 2006, the situation was quite different. Ortega became president after 16 years but he was in good graces with the Church. He married in a Catholic ceremony with his longtime partner (and now Vice President) Rosario Murillo, with Cardinal Obando y Bravo presiding. Obando y Bravo would also celebrate a Mass commemorating the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution in 2004. Even Carballo decided to keep a low profile, mostly refusing to condemn human rights abuses and the persecution of the Church in the country. His sister was appointed ambassador to the Vatican in 2019.

Thus, for most of Ortega’s first decade and a half in power, the deténte continued.

Tensions remained, but Ortega did not immediately move against the Church. Instead, he slowly but surely dismantled the Nicaraguan institutions and any potential checks and balances against him. But a dire economic situation and widespread political repression led to massive protests in 2018. And the Church quickly became a target.

The Church quickly offered to mediate between Ortega and the opposition, but tensions peaked when Nicaraguan police and armed civilians attacked the campus of a Managua university in July 2018 and the protestors, most of them students, sought refuge in a church nearby. The armed men besieged the church for two days and the situation ended with two dead students. The protestors could only leave when bishops and NGO members escorted them out of the building.

With every failed round of negotiations, the Church became more and more of a threat in the eyes of Ortega. There are no wide-ranging independent institutions in Nicaragua. No political parties, easily accessible free press, no NGOs. Universities are in dire conditions. Thus, the Church became one of the last bastions of freedom in Nicaragua. Priests never kept their mouths shut regarding the injustices they saw daily. They preached the Gospel, and they became enemies of the regime. Unlike most of the West, the Nicaraguan Church has a steady stream of vocations. Álvarez’s diocesan seminary in Matagalpa has over 100 students, while the Managua seminary has about double the number. Most Latin American dioceses would kill for such numbers.

The significant public legitimacy and the social role of the Church angered Ortega. The bishops were said to be partaking in a coup attempt along with the opposition. Silvio Báez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua and the most vocal voice against Ortega in Nicaragua, was forced into exile, first to Rome and then to Miami, due to credible death threats. Father Rafael Bermúdez fled after being attacked by paramilitary, as did Father Edwin Román after receiving death threats. Dozens of churches were burned down or attacked by armed paramilitary.

But 2022 would be the year when everything changed. In March, Nicaragua kicked out Waldemar Sommertag, the apostolic nuncio, from the country. Sommertag was widely seen as a bridge between the government and the bishops and was even controversial within the Nicaraguan opposition for allegedly being close to the first lady and VP Rosario Murillo. Sommertag’s banishment signaled Ortega’s view: the time for talking had ended.

In May, Bishop Rolando Álvarez claimed that he was being followed around Matagalpa by intelligence officers and that he would fast indefinitely until his safety and that of his family were guaranteed. The government’s response? Closing the Catholic TV station, led by Álvarez.

A few days later, the National Assembly approved an NGO law that banned over a hundred non-profit organizations, including the aforementioned Missionaries of Charity. Were the Missionaries conspiring against Ortega? It’s hard to think so, as they only ran a couple of orphanages and nursing homes in some of the poorest areas of the country. Their properties were seized by regime authorities.

In that same month, Fr. Manuel García was imprisoned and condemned to four years in prison for hitting a woman—who recanted her accusation and was charged with perjury. Fr. Leonardo Urbina was charged with raping a 12-year-old, but the trial was marred with irregularities: he was not allowed to choose a defense attorney, and the prosecutor did not present the expert witness it claimed to have. Even progressive activists in the country called the trial an absolute sham. Urbina was sentenced to thirty years in prison.

Then came the affair that set the world’s eyes on a tiny Central American rural bishop, holding a monstrance and surrounded by awe-struck policemen.

Telcor, the telecommunications regulator in Nicaragua, announced that it would close 11 radio stations and a TV channel, including ten radio stations of the diocese of Matagalpa, led by Álvarez. Álvarez was appointed as bishop of Matagalpa in 2011, when he was 46 years old, quite a young age for a Catholic bishop. His diocese combines the quite small city of Matagalpa and almost 400 surrounding rural communities. Álvarez became famous for going into the hills by mule or on foot, crossing rivers in small boats, and taking a Jeep into far-flung communities to bring them the Sacraments and the presence of their pastor. 

He became a target for the regime mainly in light of the people he publicly defended: farmers that were victims of police abuse for opposing mining in their communities, and students during the protests in 2018–19. He was the main voice of the Bishops’ Conference during the first round of negotiations in 2018. The government vetoed him for the second round in 2019. But the stream of vocations in his local seminary testify to Álvarez’s evangelical zeal, and the impact his strong stance on human rights has made.

After Telcor closed the stations, some officials intended to seize their radio equipment. One of them was located in the Divine Mercy parish in Sébaco. The parish priest, Fr. Uriel Vallejos, refused to surrender the equipment, which led to a 48-hour siege of his parish. Vallejos was trapped in the rectory with five laypeople without access to food or running water while the power to the building was cut. Vallejos then fled to Italy, eventually requesting asylum in Costa Rica. The Nicaraguan regime has asked Interpol to capture him for conspiracy.

Officially, fifteen priests have gone into exile. But some reports indicate that the number may be over fifty and increasing daily.

When Álvarez announced a Mass in the local cathedral to protest the persecution, he was not allowed to leave the curial building. What came afterward was two weeks of house arrest for Álvarez and five other priests, two seminarians, and four laypeople. One of the four was allowed to leave the premises while another was exiled to El Salvador. The rest of them, including Álvarez, were eventually taken into custody on August 19. All of them but Álvarez were sent to El Chipote. Álvarez was placed under house arrest at a family home in Managua. 

Strangely, Álvarez was not charged with a crime for a few months. Reports indicated that the Vatican and the Bishops’ Conference were trying to negotiate to get Álvarez exiled, but he adamantly refused.

Pope Francis has remained mostly silent, as has the Bishops’ Conference. Some believe there’s some complicity in such silence. However, there are two likelier explanations. First, after Ortega kicked out the nuncio, the bishops became the sole representatives of the Vatican in the country. Thus, they play the role of negotiators on behalf of the Pope. Second, they simply fear that saying too much would lead to even more persecution against the Church and thus leave the faithful without priests and bishops to lead them in the faith.

Yet, the silence has not diminished persecution against the Church. Other priests such as Father Óscar Benavidez have been imprisoned, while still others, such as Father Erick Díaz, were forced into exile. Others such as Father Guillermo Blandón were not allowed into the country after visiting their families abroad. Officially, 15 priests have gone into exile. But some reports indicate that the number can be over 50 and increasing daily.

Just a day after sentencing Álvarez’s collaborators to 10 years in prison, the Nicaraguan regime decided to ship 222 political prisoners off to the US. They were all stripped of their Nicaraguan nationality.

However, Álvarez refused to board the plane. And he would pay dearly: he was sentenced to 26 years in prison just a day later.

Not much is known about the one-day trial: Though his family asked the court to name a defense attorney of their choice, the judge imposed a defense attorney on Álvarez, which happens to be the same public defender that handled Fr. Urbina’s case.

It is hard to predict what will come next for the Church in Nicaragua, but it seems likely that the persecution will get worse. Although the regime freed most jailed priests, many are being exiled, most processions are banned, and almost all Catholic media has been outlawed. The regime is also sending intelligence officers to report on what priests are saying during Mass. For example, Fr. Óscar Benavidez was imprisoned near his parish a couple of hours after preaching a Mass that criticized human rights abuses. Nothing indicates that the situation will improve in the foreseeable future.

However, as Álvarez said in a homily during his arrest in the curia of Matagalpa “although it seems that the road looks dark and gloomy, God is the king of the universe, and everything that the Lord allows, as St. Paul says, happens for the good of those who love the Lord.”