Praying for Bishop Álvarez

COMMENTARY: The Nicaraguan bishop is currently being held prisoner on trumped-up charges by the anti-Catholic Ortega regime.

Bishop Rolando Alvarez prays at the Santo Cristo de Esquipulas church in Managua, on May 20, 2022.
Bishop Rolando Alvarez prays at the Santo Cristo de Esquipulas church in Managua, on May 20, 2022. (photo: STR / AFP/Getty)

At Tuesday’s National Catholic Prayer Breakfast held in Washington, D.C., attendees heard inspiring speeches, honored beacons of the faith and prayed for the persecuted. 

We bowed our heads in a special moment of prayer for Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, who has been sentenced to prison for more than 26 years on trumped-up charges by his country’s president, Daniel Ortega. 

Back in the 1980s, Ortega was leader of Nicaragua's Marxist Sandinista government. His regime was fawned over by some Catholics in the U.S., who were thrilled that Ortega’s minister of culture was Father Ernesto Cardenal, a proponent of liberation theology who defied canon law in order to become a politician. They were embarrassed when Pope John Paul II, who visited Nicaragua in 1983, reprimanded Father Cardenal — and dismayed when the Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990.

In 2006, Ortega returned as president, appointing his wife, Rosario Murillo, vice president. Now, Ortega was no longer an unbelieving Marxist; he made a show of displaying his Catholicism — and, once again, Catholics with progressive political leanings were taken in. 

But faithful bishops, priests and laypeople in Nicaragua could see that Ortega was suppressing democracy — at first quietly, then brutally. One of the regime’s most perceptive critics was Bishop Álvarez, who had been made bishop of Matagalpa by Benedict XVI in 2011, when he was only 44 years old.

Mary Anastasia O’Grady, opinion columnist at The Wall Street Journal, poignantly observed shortly after Bishop Álvarez’s imprisonment that “he has been speaking for years in support of peace, tolerance and respect for human rights. He regularly denounced religious persecution and abuses by the regime. But what really put a target on his back was his fearlessness before squads of heavily armed Ortega goons. Dressed in his cassock and packing only sacramental images, he simply refused to back down.”

You might expect that the Vatican would immediately leap to his defense. Not so. As Father Raymond de Souza observed, writing in the Register last year, the Vatican’s Secretariat of State treated Nicaraguan democracy protests rather as it treated those in Hong Kong: as something to be passed over in silence. Ortega, rather like China’s President Xi, took advantage of this highly questionable policy to step up his repressive measures. 

In March 2022, Ortega expelled Msgr. Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua. He has also shut down Catholic radio and television stations, kicked out of the country several Catholic religious orders, including the Missionaries of Charity, and even banned public religious processions during Lent. While Ortega’s fury fumes, Nicaraguans understandably have fled the country in record numbers

In early February, as part of a deal brokered by the Biden administration, 222 political prisoners were released from their imprisonment, stripped of their Nicaraguan citizenship and forcibly exiled to the United States. Bishop Álvarez refused to join them. “Let them go free. I will pay their sentence,” he said. The next day, Bishop Álvarez was convicted, sentenced and was allegedly sent to “La Modelo” — a maximum-security prison. Recent reports question his actual whereabouts. 

In early March, the head of a United Nations investigation accused the Nicaraguan government of “crimes against humanity.” Jan Michael Simon, chairman of the investigatory committee, said, “The use of the justice system against political opponents, as in Nicaragua, is exactly what the Nazi regime did.” 

He added that Ortega and his wife, Vice President Murillo, have been “weaponizing the justice system, weaponizing the legislative function, weaponizing the executive function of the State against the population.” The committee’s report condemns the Ortega regime for holding the Nicaraguan people “hostage” while committing “widespread and systematic human-rights violations that amount to crimes against humanity.” 

Shortly after the release of the U.N. report, Pope Francis spoke out. In an interview with an Argentinian website, he suggested that Ortega was “unstable” and, borrowing from the U.N., also likened his government to that of Hitler’s Germany. President Ortega noticed and, not surprisingly, lashed out. He immediately closed the Vatican embassy in Managua and the Nicaraguan embassy to the Holy See in Rome.

Presumably, relations will be restored once Ortega is gone; his appalling career will soon come to an end, and when it does, Bishop Álvarez will be recognized as a national hero for standing up to Ortega. And in the meantime, Catholics must continue to pray for the courageous bishop from Matagalpa and demand, via our Church and political leaders, that his witness not be ignored.