Old and New Persecution in Nicaragua
The treatment of the Catholic Church in the country is one continuous story from the start of Daniel Ortega’s left-wing regime.
Last week, the world woke up to the news that Bishop Rolando Álvarez, along with eight companions, had been taken in police custody to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The images of the bishop of Matagalpa kneeling before the officers who held him under house arrest, blessing them with the Holy Sacrament, shocked the world.
It seemed impossible such brazen persecution of the Catholic Church still had a place in the West, where mistreatment of Christians now tends toward pressure, prejudice, and inaction against the crimes of radicals. The bishop's imprisonment looks more like something out of a 19th-century liberal revolution or a 20th-century communist regime. That is precisely why this persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua seems to come from another time: it does.
The Sandinistas, led by dictator Daniel Ortega, first came to power in 1979 after a two-decade-long, bloody civil war that left about 35,000 dead. After ten further years of conflict against the Contras resulting in 30,000 more killed, Ortega lost the election of 1990.
Unfortunately for Nicaragua, he would win once more in 2006 and never lose power again. Ortega changed the constitution to enable his reelection, persecuted any potential presidential candidate within the opposition, closed media or made his family acquire it—the typical revolutionary manual. Meanwhile, an economic crisis was brewing, and with it a wave of brutal repression that eventually erupted in the massive protests of 2018-19.
The opposition and the government negotiated; as usual in Latin America, the Catholic Church served as mediator. Church officials likely didn’t expect what was to come: their role in the failed negotiation made them the perfect scapegoat for Ortega. They were blamed for not being impartial and accused of trying to stage a coup alongside the opposition. And so the persecution against the Catholic Church escalated.
The auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, was forced into exile by credible death threats. Father Edwin Román suffered the same fate. Dozens of churches, cathedrals, and church properties were burned or partially destroyed by Sandinista paramilitary forces.
In 2022, the persecution has reached new heights.
In March, Nicaragua declared the apostolic nuncio, Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, persona non grata. It was an odd move considering that Sommertag was generally seen as an appeasing force within the Church in Nicaragua, always open to dialogue and conciliation with Ortega’s regime. His expulsion was a bold declaration of intentions.
In May, the government decided to close the Catholic TV station, after its director, Bishop Álvarez, declared himself in indefinite fasting because he was being followed around his city by intelligence officers.
A few days later, a new NGO law was enacted that banned over 100 non-profits, including the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Hardly a political force in the country, the Missionaries ran a few orphanages and nursing homes for the poor across Nicaragua; they were forced to leave for Costa Rica, and their properties were seized.
Also in May, Father Manuel García, well known for his opposition to Ortega, was jailed for allegedly hitting a woman (who later recanted her allegations and was charged with perjury) and later condemned to four years in prison. Another priest was charged with raping a 12-year-old, but even progressive activists in the country are not buying the allegations against him.
Shortly thereafter, Telcor—the telecommunications body of Nicaragua—announced it would close 11 radio stations and one TV channel, including ten radio stations of the diocese of Matagalpa, led by Álvarez, who has become public enemy number one of the Nicaraguan government.
One of the stations was located in the Divine Mercy parish in the city of Sébaco. After the parish priest, Uriel Vallejos, did not surrender the equipment to authorities, a 48-hour siege of his church ensued. Fr. Vallejos was left trapped in the church’s rectory along with five laypeople, power to the building was cut, and they were left without access to food. Vallejos has since reportedly been exiled to Miami.
Bishop Álvarez announced a mass to be celebrated in protest of the persecution, but he was not allowed to leave the episcopal chancery. That was two weeks ago, and Álvarez was under de facto house arrest while the police announced an investigation against him. During that time, rumors circled that the government was negotiating Álvarez’s exile with the Bishops’ Conference, but the bishop refused.
Eventually, what everyone expected happened: Bishop Álvarez was taken into custody in Managua on the morning of Friday, August 19. His companions were sent to El Chipote, a detention center designed for political prisoners in the country, famous for beatings and torture.
To understand the current persecution of the Church in Nicaragua, we must understand its broader historical context in the country and in the Central American region in general.
In fact, Álvarez himself was a victim of the old persecution of the Church in Nicaragua. When the Sandinistas were in power in the 80s, they established what they called Servicio Militar Patriótico (Patriotic Military Service); thousands of young men were forced to take arms for the Sandinista regime, while others, especially devout Catholics like young Álvarez, fled the country. Álvarez went to Guatemala and started his seminary studies to become a priest there. Álvarez’s renewed persecution reflects a state of affairs that has endured for decades.
The ’70s and ’80s were full of civil wars and military dictatorships across the subcontinent, including in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
The iconic martyr of that period was Saint Óscar Arnulfo Romero, archbishop of San Salvador, who, for his constant criticism of the military dictatorship in his country, was murdered while celebrating mass.
Due to his fearlessness and holiness, Romero quickly became an archetype for bishops in Central America. Most prelates in the region model (or at least believe they do) their episcopacy on Romero’s as they seek to stand with the poor and the excluded, unafraid—even imprudent—in their criticism of the government and the powerful.
Bishop Rolando Álvarez very clearly believes he must follow Saint Óscar Romero’s example. Romero’s portrait has always accompanied him during his livestreams while on house arrest, and he quotes him in his homilies. Alvarez, like Romero, is not afraid to say he is fully disposed to die for his flock if need be.
Romero was hardly the only martyr in Central America in that decade. The blood of many martyrs was the seed of the modern Catholic Church in Central America, such as Blessed Stanley Rother in Guatemala and the Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline Dorothy Kazel, and lay missionary Jean Donovan, raped and murdered in El Salvador in 1980. Jimmy Carter interrupted aid to El Salvador in response, but the Reagan administration wanted good relations with the Salvadorian dictatorship and docketed the ongoing investigation.
In the other Central American countries, the persecution came mostly from right-wing military juntas, but Nicaragua’s case was special. After the Marxist revolution allowed the Sandinistas to seize power, Ortega named many priests influenced by liberation theology as ministers, including Ernesto Cardenal as minister of culture and Miguel D’Escoto as minister of foreign affairs. In conflict with the bishops and Pope John Paul II, Ortega’s collaborators were stripped of their priestly faculties.
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua, was one of the loudest voices of opposition to the Marxist regime (and to Somoza’s before that). The reactions by the Sandinista government were soon to come. In August 1982, regime agents arrested Fr. Bismarck Carballo—director of a Catholic radio station—and threw him naked on the street. A couple of years later, the regime expelled ten foreign priests who were critical of the government. Dozens of local priests were accused of conspiring against the regime; some had to flee the country, including Bishop Pablo Vega of Juigalpa in 1986.
At the same time, the Contras—supported by the Reagan administration—murdered and tortured laypeople linked with the government-sponsored Iglesia Popular, a semi-schismatic movement in the country influenced by liberation theology. In some instances, they even targeted regular Catholics perceived to be left-wing activists.
Thus, the persecution of the Church in Nicaragua is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, the man at the very top of both episodes of persecution is the same.
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What will happen next? Ortega is the most unpredictable dictator in the Americas. Before the 2018 protests, the relations between Ortega and the Church were sometimes tense but generally cordial. Then he chose the Church as his sacrificial lamb. Recent decisions, such as expelling the Missionaries of Charity and jailing two priests who were not particularly known for political activism, have been random and unjustified.
Some criticize Pope Francis for his silence. But John Paul II’s confrontational stance did not change much for the persecution of the Catholic Church in the country in the ’80s. Francis has probably chosen silence because he believes that saying anything can only make matters worse.
If anything, one must remember the words Bishop Álvarez wrote to his priests in a letter from house arrest: “Priests of the Lord, I know that heavy is the burden, that it is a lot of weight for our shoulders, but the Lord already said it: my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”