An open letter addressed to the Holy Father by exiled Nicaraguans has implored him to act on their behalf, saying ‘don’t leave us alone.’
President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has enacted a string of persecutions, including the arrest of Bishop Rolando José Álvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa.
The signatories said they ‘fear what may happen to him.’ Bishop Álvarez, who is believed to still be under house arrest, was detained by police on August 19 after a two- week standoff at his residence along with five priests. The priests, along with a cameraman, are reported to have been imprisoned in Managua, the capital.
A few kilometres away in the city of Sébaco, Fr Uriel Vallejos was held captive in the parish house of Jesus of Divine Mercy where he was surrounded by police and government paramilitary forces. Fr Vallejos had refused to surrender his radio equipment after Telcor, the telecoms institute of Nicaragua, announced the closure of 11 radio stations – 10 of which were in Bishop Álvarez’s diocese.
The 48-hour siege of Jesus of Divine Mercy ended after power and access to food was cut and Fr Vallejos was exiled to Miami. Bishop Álvarez ordered Mass to be celebrated in protest at the government’s actions, leading to his detention.
The letter to the Pope states that the Church has suffered ‘terrorist attacks that have not been investigated’ by the authorities. “The worst attack was the firebomb that destroyed the venerated image of The Blood of Christ in the Cathedral of Managua. Holy Father, since April 2018, more than 380 Nicaraguans have lost their lives, victims of state repression according to international human rights organizations.”
More than 180 religious brothers and sisters have been imprisoned for opposing the regime, where ‘absolute impunity reigns’ which has ‘plunged the country into a de fact police state.’
The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland has issued a statement following the persecution, saying that they are ‘alarmed’ and ‘express their solidarity with the Bishops’ Conference of Nicaragua.’
“We offer the promise of our prayers for a just resolution to the current situation, which will allow the people of Nicaragua to enjoy such fundamental rights as freedom of speech and freedom of religion and permit them to worship, pray and manifest their faith freely,” the statement said.
“We urge the government of Nicaragua to enter into a respectful dialogue with the Church in the hope that both Church and state may coexist peacefully.”
Professor Mario Aguilar of St Andrews University, who knows Bishop Álvarez personally, noted that the Bishop’s diocese was central to the 1961-1979 Nicaraguan Revolution that brought to power Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
“I think what Ortega wanted was simply to stop Bishop Álvarez from leading his people, which he was doing very well,” he said.
He said if President Ortega had moved to imprison Bishop Álvarez, there is a high likelihood of US sanctions, ‘but at the moment he has seven to nine priests in prison.’
“So this is a full persecution against the Church and therefore the plan is to silence the Church. This is almost impossible,” he said.
“The Catholic Church survived the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. It is a community of believers but it is also an international corporation, and so when you attack a bishop the pressure will come upon you from the European Union and the United States.”
Professor Aguilar was himself a member of the FSLN international brigade during the Nicaraguan Revolution and noted that the government which recently banned Catholic processions was very close to the Church in the 1980s.
“Priests were involved as ministers. The Church was very close to the revolution,” he said. “When Ortega was elected in 2006, he started to feel that the Church didn’t like him. This is the crest of the wave of 20 years of pressure.”
He explained the move by President Ortega likely came out of desperation to hold power, but the international pressure that results from oppressing the Church will likely spell the end of his rule.
“I said to a bishop in Rome last week that there is a long story here of 50 years of dictators, and when they oppose the Catholic Church, that is the end of them.”