In a troubling sign for Central America, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government crackdown on critics has focused increasingly on the country’s Catholic Church leaders.
Bishop Rolando José Álvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa last week became the latest and one of the most visible to run afoul of the Nicaraguan government in recent months.
Among its actions this year, the government has expelled Catholics from the country, including an order of nuns in July, and the Vatican's ambassador, known as the nuncio, in March.
National police detained Bishop Alvarez and several colleagues in a church building Aug. 4 after the bishop publicly objected to the government shutdown of a network of Catholic radio stations that was critical of the Ortega regime for repressive practices and human rights violations.
Undeterred, the bishop said on Twitter: “All our radio stations have been closed, but they will not cancel the word of God.”
Bishop Alvarez, who coordinated the radio network, had not been charged with a crime as of this writing. But he and his companions—a group of priests and lay Catholics—remained under what amounts to house arrest while the police conduct an investigation that includes the country’s bishops. A statement by the police said they were investigating “violent groups” that were plotting to destabilize the government and attack its constitutional authorities.
Relations between the Ortega government and the Catholic Church have been deteriorating since 2018, when there were protests throughout the country against the president’s rule.
The following year, Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez of Managua, the capital city, who also had been critical of the government, left Nicaragua after receiving death threats. He later said Pope Francis had asked him to leave rather than risk becoming “another bishop martyr in Central America”—an apparent reference to El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero, a champion of his country’s poor, who was assassinated in 1980 while offering Mass. He was canonized in 2018.
We don’t want to see another bishop martyr in Central America either.
It would be in the best interest of the people of Nicaragua and the entire Central American region if the Ortega government and the Church could co-exist peacefully, enabling the Church to continue serving the poor and the sick in a part of the world where many have such needs.
As a leader of the revolutionary Sandinista movement, Ortega led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990 and returned again as president in 2007. His repression of those he perceives as political opponents—including journalists, nonprofit aid agencies and civic leaders—has resulted in his increasing isolation in the world community. In 2021, President Biden banned him from entering the United States.
Bishop Alvarez, for now, appears to have a good deal of international support, and even while detained has had access to social media.
Unable to be at his cathedral to celebrate Mass on Sunday, the bishop posted a video on various social media platforms, saying, “We have to respond to hate with love, despair with hope, and fear with the strength and courage given to us by the glorious and resurrected Christ.”
On that, we fully agree, and we pray for the bishop and his people.