Nicaragua represses the Catholic Church

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Dressed in a blue shirt instead of clerical garb and thin after nearly four months under house arrest, Bishop Rolando Álvarez sat alone in a Nicaraguan courtroom, accused of conspiracy to undermine national integrity and spread false news.

Last week’s appearance was his first in public since he was arrested in August during a raid on his diocesan headquarters in Matagalpa, where he was hiding with 11 colleagues in protest against the closure of Catholic media.

The arrest of Nicaragua’s most outspoken prelate, whose trial will begin in January, has sent an unequivocal message to other opponents of the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

“He has been very direct and one of the few priests who is not afraid to speak out,” said Yader Morazán, a lawyer who fled Nicaragua in 2018. “It is about punishing him and sowing terror in the population and other clerics. also”.

The business community was cowed into silence after voicing support for anti-government protesters in 2018. Leaders of Cosep, the main business organization, were arrested. The regime shut down more than 3,000 NGOs and forced the closure of 54 media outlets, according to Confidencial, a Nicaraguan newspaper that operates in neighboring Costa Rica.

It is now stepping up its crackdown on the Catholic Church, which has criticized Ortega’s persecution of protesters and his authoritarian excesses, while supporting the families of political prisoners.

“It aims to close the last civic space left in the country, which is the space of freedom of conscience, freedom of preaching, religious freedom, even the church,” said Carlos Chamorro, director of Confidencial.

A Nicaraguan exile in Costa Rica holds a sign that reads: “Out with Ortega and Murillo! #SOSNicaragua” at a protest against the detention of Bishop Alvarez in San Jose, Costa Rica, in August © Mayela Lopez/Reuters

The persecution of Álvarez and the church comes as Ortega and Murillo consolidate power and arrest opponents. The ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front swept all 153 municipalities in last month’s elections, which the US called “a pantomime”.

The regime continues to hold 225 political prisoners, including “relatives of detained political opponents, allegedly to coerce them to surrender,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said last week.

“It is on its way to becoming a virtual North Korea in Central America,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group. “It is a country where Ortega considered that, in order to maintain control of the state and remain in power, the only way to do so is through the total suppression of any minimal voice of dissent.”

Ortega and Murillo routinely condemned the bishops as “terrorists” and “coup plotters”. Police thwarted feast day processions and officers routinely patrol outside churches in acts of intimidation, according to priests.

The Missionaries of Charity, an order founded by Mother Teresa, left in July after losing registration. The Vatican’s ambassador, Archbishop Waldemar Sommertag, was expelled in March.

“The last institution that stood as a beacon of hope was the church,” said an exiled priest, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

The church has had a complicated relationship with Ortega since he became president in 1979, when the Sandinistas overthrew Anastasio Somoza. Ortega lost power in 1990 but regained office in 2007, presenting himself as a true Catholic and courting close ties with the church’s hierarchy, analysts say.

Ortega and Murillo were married in a Catholic ceremony in 2005. He later supported a draconian abortion law in 2006, passed two weeks before an election he won, that bans the procedure under all circumstances.

🇧🇷[The bishops] They got distracted by this Ortegas effort to crack down on abortion and didn’t see the rest of the picture,” said Ryan Berg, director of the Americas program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank.

“Ortega uses the Catholic Church as a kind of handy device if he needs it and as a rug if he needs to place the blame somewhere.”

The church became an outspoken critic of Ortega after protests erupted in 2018 over proposed social security reform.

Priests opened their parishes to injured protesters pursued by police and paramilitaries. The bishops’ conference convened a national dialogue to find a way out of the protests and political crisis, but later withdrew, citing bad faith on the part of the government.

Pope Francis spoke warmly about Nicaragua. He expressed concern after Álvarez’s arrest in August and called for dialogue. He said at a press conference the following month: “There is dialogue. This does not mean that we approve or disapprove of everything the government is doing.”

Analysts say the dialogue between the government and protesters has shifted from trying to find a political solution to the 2018 protests to simply seeking to improve conditions for prisoners held at El Chipote prison, on the outskirts of the capital, Managua.

Daniel Ortega first came to power in Nicaragua in 1979, when the Sandinistas overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza © POOL/AFP via Getty Images

“Dialogue makes no sense with the dictatorship because it keeps the participants of the first dialogue in prison,” said Father Edwin Román, a Nicaraguan priest exiled in Miami.

“I don’t think the Catholic Church lends itself to another circus when there is a bishop and priests in jail.”

The Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua has remained silent on Álvarez’s arrest. Did not respond to a request for comment.

“The bishops opted for silence and prayer and did not mention the problem so as not to be persecuted,” said the exiled priest.

“This does not sit well with a demoralized people. 🇧🇷 🇧🇷 asking that something be done and that the bishop be defended”.

The exiled priest said he knew 11 imprisoned priests, including Álvarez, along with two seminarians. An unknown number ran away or got kicked out. Murillo, a government spokesman, declined the request for an interview, but said in a brief statement: “Together, let’s move forward with our heads held high!”

Álvarez repeatedly refused to flee the country prior to his arrest.

“Bishop Rolando Álvarez prefers to stay in Nicaragua, although imprisoned, and not go free to another country,” said Bishop José Antonio Canales, from Danlí, Honduras, who knows Álvarez. “He is a very brave and determined man.”

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