More than 150 political leaders in Nicaragua have been kept in prison at the direct order of Daniel Ortega, including the noted Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison and who has, according to reports, been stripped of his nationality. In early October, three more priests were irregularly detained, in what some Human Rights activists in Nicaragua have deemed a Kristallnacht of sorts. Recently, after allegedly reaching an agreement with the Vatican, Ortega’s regime has released 12 Catholic priests, deporting them to Rome. But this isolated gesture is far from stopping what has been deemed a systematic eradication of Catholicism in the Central American nation.
A series of reports on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua by exiled civil rights lawyer and researcher Martha Patricia Molina have documented 529 attacks over the past five years — 90 so far this year. The Church is being systematically targeted because it is “the last [independent] bastion left in Nicaragua.”
Ortega’s regime, Molina explains, “took the media, the institutions, the political parties and the NGOs. So, the only space left is the Church.”
The Jesuit priest José María Tojeira, who is also the spokesman for the Society of Jesus in Nicaragua, is campaigning to ask Pope Francis to appoint Bishop Rolando Álvarez as a new Nicaraguan cardinal.
According to the note published by the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, the appointment of Álvarez as cardinal would imply a powerful political message. It would not only be a public recognition of Bishop Alvarez’s struggle for justice, peace, and freedom in Nicaragua, it would also imply a “prophetic message: naming a bishop cardinal who is imprisoned would be like returning to the origins of the Church itself,” explains academic Ernesto Medina, a member of the Space for Dialogue and Confluence among Nicaraguan FactionsNGO.
“We know that the Church began to spread from the persecutions and deaths of thousands of martyrs who suffered so that the message of Jesus could spread. Suffering and prison are not foreign to the message of the Church,” Medina explained.
Last March, the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry declared that diplomatic relations between Nicaragua and the Holy See have been suspended. The request to close their respective diplomatic missions came one day after Ortega’s regime decided to shut down Caritas Nicaragua, and one week after the closure of seven universities – two of them with ties to the Catholic Church: the John Paul II Catholic University and the Autonomous Christian University. This is not, however, a definitive break in relations, as was then reported by media outlets.
On March 2022, the then Apostolic Nuncio in Managua, Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, was expelled from Nicaragua. At the time, the Holy See reacted to Ortega’s decision with surprise and regret. “Such a measure seems incomprehensible […] because in the course of his mission Archbishop Sommertag worked with profound dedication for the good of the Church and the Nicaraguan people, especially the most vulnerable, always seeking to foster good relations between the Apostolic See and the authorities of Nicaragua,” as read in a press release then published by the Vatican.