Standing Up for Nicaragua

A NOTE FROM THE PUBLISHER: As the Ortega regime attempts to dismantle Catholicism in the country, Bishop Rolando Álvarez’s imprisonment represents the pinnacle of why the world needs to care and governments need to act now.

An image of Bishop Rolando Alvarez is pinned to a robe on a statue of Jesus Christ at the Cathedral in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022.
An image of Bishop Rolando Alvarez is pinned to a robe on a statue of Jesus Christ at the Cathedral in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, Friday, Aug. 19, 2022. (photo: Inti Ocon / AP)

It was seven months ago that the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, in Nicaragua sentenced Bishop Rolando Álvarez Lagos of Matagalpa to 26 years and four months in prison, charging him with being a “traitor to the homeland.”

That outrageous attack on religious freedom and, more specifically, the Catholic Church in Nicaragua drew international media coverage and widespread condemnation. Today, however, the exact whereabouts of Bishop Álvarez are unknown, and some people question whether he is even still alive. Meanwhile, the regime’s persecution of the Church continues unabated. 

These recent acts of aggression demonstrate how ineffective the United States and the international community have been so far in pressuring the Ortega government to change course. And Catholic priests and faithful citizens and religious groups in Nicaragua are paying a heavy price for that failure.

Consider some of the events that have taken place in just the last four months. 

In May, the regime headed by Ortega and his wife — who serves as vice president — arbitrarily froze the bank accounts of priests in several dioceses and the Archdiocese of Managua, as well as the accounts of parochial schools, formation houses and parishes. At the same time, the dictatorship disseminated a report accusing the Catholic Church of an array of transparently false charges such as “terrorism” and “money laundering” — standard lies the Ortega-Murillo regime has circulated against individuals and groups brave enough to speak out against its egregious human-rights abuses. 

In July, this financial freeze was senselessly extended to the Church’s retirement funds for priests. Clearly, the regime is attempting to stamp out the local Church’s ability to minister to and care for the beleaguered Nicaraguan people. 

Another similarly heartless action was the government’s refusal to allow two Nicaraguan priests to return to their homeland in early August after they participated in World Youth Day in Lisbon, Portugal. Apparently for Nicaragua’s anti-religious socialist rulers, even something as innocuous as Catholic youth ministry merits draconian punishment.

The regime dramatically ratcheted up its anti-Catholic persecution later in August, this time targeting the Society of Jesus, Pope Francis’ own religious order. Shortly after seizing control of the Jesuit-operated Universidad Centroamericana on Aug. 15 — once again on trumped-up “terrorism” charges — the government moved to suppress the order, seizing all of its national assets and revoking its legal standing. 

These recent actions, reminiscent of communist China and other regimes intolerant of religious expression, add to a long list of assaults Ortega and his wife have meted out against Catholics since 2018, when Church leaders rebuked the regime’s violent crackdown on anti-government protests. Other religious-liberty violations over the last few years include the expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity, in July 2022, and the imprisonment of numerous Catholic priests and religious

In all of this attempted dismantling of Catholicism in the country, Bishop Álvarez’s stand has become a rallying point. His witness is both a hope and inspiration. His case is the pinnacle of why the world needs to care and governments need to act to impact the situation in Nicaragua. His kangaroo-court conviction was handed down one day after the courageous Nicaraguan shepherd heroically refused to leave his own country, alongside 222 other political prisoners who were deported to the U.S

Right now in Nicaragua even publicly praying for Bishop Álvarez is a crime. On Sept. 8 Father Osman José Amador Guillén, who had publicly requested prayers for the imprisoned bishop, was kidnapped by the police.

This depressing litany of religious repression demands a forceful and sustained international response — and, thankfully, one is beginning to take shape. 

In early June, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights spoke out forcefully against the attacks being undertaken against the Catholic Church as well as against political opponents, journalists and human-rights advocates. ADF International filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Bishop Álvarez.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also addressed the situation in its most recent annual report. In keeping with the commission’s recommendations, the State Department subsequently designated Nicaragua as a “Country of Particular Concern,” meaning that it has engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” 

The commission called for a range of other corrective actions by the U.S. government, including “targeted sanctions” to freeze the assets of Nicaraguan officials and agencies responsible for these crimes and bar their entry to the U.S. While the State Department has taken some recent actions, much more must be done to implement the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s recommendations. 

The world rightfully looks to our nation to take the lead in defending religious liberty. So, as Global Liberty Alliance President Jason Poblete recently put it, it’s time for the Biden administration to stop “dawdling with the dictator” and impose additional sanctions.

What should the Vatican do, in this bleak political context? In an interview with an Argentinian media outlet shortly after Bishop Álvarez’s conviction, Pope Francis compared Nicaragua’s odious regime to “a communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitlerian one in 1935.” The government immediately retaliated by expelling the papal nuncio, thereby curtailing Rome’s limited capacity to work quietly behind the scenes to ameliorate the ongoing religious repression and human-rights abuses. 

This retribution serves as a pointed reminder of the difficulties involved with calibrating a constructive response when an authoritarian and hostile regime persecutes its Catholic population. But the government’s subsequent actions cry out for further condemnation from the Holy See. As a precedent, some observers cite the public admonishment Pope St. John Paul II delivered at a 1983 papal event in Nicaragua to Father Ernesto Cardenal, chastising the liberation-theology priest for serving as a cabinet minister during Ortega’s first term in power from 1979 to 1990. Today, Pope Francis’ words and actions could similarly bring clarity and urgency to this current crisis.

While the Nicaraguan people are facing a dire moment, the peaceful and prayerful resistance of the country’s Catholics is a sign of hope. Historically, the Church has flourished in times of intense persecution against all odds, and dictators have been left defeated when their objective is to detach the faithful from the deep Catholic faith that permeates culture.

Of course, these aren’t reasons to let up on pressing the U.S. government and the international community to act on behalf of Nicaragua, but they should provide us with encouragement as we pray and push for greater support of the Central American nation’s afflicted local Church.

God bless you!