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How can the world stand by and watch the purge of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua?

Ortega (left) and commander in chief of the Nicaraguan Army Julio Aviles during a ceremony in 2020  (AFP/Getty)
Ortega (left) and commander in chief of the Nicaraguan Army Julio Aviles during a ceremony in 2020 (AFP/Getty)

On 7 November 2021, Nicaragua held another fraudulent presidential election, which the European Union declared an “electoral farce”.

The regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, arbitrarily incarcerated seven presidential pre-candidates, and approximately 40 opposition leaders, students, rural leaders, journalists, human rights defenders, and business representatives, effectively eliminating all credible electoral competition.

The duo had consolidated their absolute power – eviscerating all democratic institutions. The consequences have been devastating.

A report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) states that a police state has been established through repression, corruption, electoral fraud, and structural impunity designed by the government to indefinitely perpetuate its power and maintain its privileges and immunities.

The Ortega-Murillo regime has been perpetrating crimes against humanity. The Catholic Church is the institution which, since 2018, has borne the brunt of their attacks. Just like the Castro regime did in Cuba during the 1960s, Nicaragua has experienced harsh restrictions on religious freedom, practices, and church processions. Catholic education has been forbidden and anyone who is perceived as a political or religious enemy is targeted.

The Ortega-Murillo regime’s “purge” of the Catholic Church has included abducting, imprisoning and convicting bishops, priests, seminarians, and members of religious congregations on trumped-up charges of plotting a coup. Many have been banished from Nicaragua, with such repressive tactics being likened to Joseph Stalin’s purge of religious institutions in the Soviet Union.

In July 2022, the Ortega-Murillo regime escalated its repression of the Church, calling bishops and priests “devils in cassocks”. To try to silence them, a forced closure of Catholic media outlets was instigated, which included 11 radio stations and four TV channels.

On 4 August 2022, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez Lagos, bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa, was held hostage in the curial house by security forces. They prevented him from leaving the premises to celebrate mass in the Cathedral and he was put under house arrest for “organising violent groups” and “carrying out acts of hate”. The security forces also prohibited the clergy and laity that were with him, which included five priests, two seminarians, and one photographer, from leaving the house, while simultaneously preventing anyone from entering the premises to bring food, drinks, and vital medicines.

For 15 days, the police held the curial house under siege. Abruptly on 19 August 2022, at around 3.20am, special forces then violently forced their way in to kidnap Monsignor Alvarez Lagos who was taken in a pick-up truck to an undisclosed location in Managua, whilst the priests, seminarians, laypersons, and photographer were sent to El Chipote prison.

A demonstrator takes part in a vigil to demand the release of political prisoners (AFP/Getty)
A demonstrator takes part in a vigil to demand the release of political prisoners (AFP/Getty)

Alvarez had been targeted after refusing to join the hundreds of political prisoners who had been exiled to the United States. Not wanting to abandon the people of Nicaragua, as retaliation, he was then transferred to the infamous “La Modelo” prison, and during a spurious trial, was held to be a traitor to the country and sentenced to 26 years and 4 months, while also being stripped of his nationality.

He has since become a powerful symbol of resistance in Nicaragua, never faltering in his struggle against tyranny and oppression. It is now time for the world to wake up. For almost a year, his family was rarely allowed to see him and he was denied medical attention. During this time I have given Monsignor Alvarez my unwavering support – campaigning throughout the world for his unconditional release and to raise awareness about the other bishops, priests, seminarians, sisters of charity, and political prisoners who are languishing in the dungeons of Nicaragua.

I  testified before the House of Foreign Affairs Committee in the Subcommittee Hearing titled The Ortega-Murillo Regime’s War Against the Catholic Church and Civil Society in Nicaragua: Bishop Alvarez, Political Prisoners, and Prisoners of Conscience.

On Bishop Alvarez’s birthday, 27 November 2023, his family was not allowed to visit him, and after repeated demands of “proof of life” and unrestricted access to the International Red Cross, a demand also made by US congressman Chris Smith, a series of staged photographs were finally released.

They were intended to “show” us how the 57-year-old Bishop was receiving medical attention and preferential treatment. On closer inspection, the photographs revealed the Bishop’s emaciated frame, his health having visibly deteriorated. He looked forlorn – no longer the man he used to be.

Catholic bishop Rolando Alvarez speaks to the press at the Santo Cristo de Esquipulas church (AFP/Getty)
Catholic bishop Rolando Alvarez speaks to the press at the Santo Cristo de Esquipulas church (AFP/Getty)

Almost two months later, on the morning of 14 January, news came that a plane with members of the clergy on board had left Nicaragua destined for Rome. I held my breath and prayed he was on board. After learning he was counted among the passengers the relief was bittersweet. He was finally free from the yoke of this tyrannical regime, but he had been expelled from his beloved Nicaragua.

His release was the result of a combined effort of countless individuals throughout the world, his Holiness Pope Francis, the unwavering support of exiled Monsignor Silvio Baez, Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, and many other religious leaders, members of governments, parliaments, US Congress and NGOs throughout the world.

Bishop Rolando Jose Alvarez Lagos had spent 527 days as a captive since he was first held hostage. His release, and that of the others, is testament to the courage and resilience of the Nicaraguan people and their families who never gave up.

The official statement from his release by the Ortega-Murillo regime read: “The presidency of the republic, of the government of reconciliation and national unity and the people of Nicaragua, deeply thank the holy father, Pope Francis, the secretary of state of the Holy See, its cardinal, His most reverend Eminence, Pietro Parolin and his work team, for the very respectful and discreet coordination carried out to make possible the trip to the Vatican of two bishops, fifteen priests, and two seminarians.”

Ortega and Murillo are unchecked old-school despots, and the systematic repression of the Catholic Church, along with political dissidents and the free press in Nicaragua, is the type of behaviour that was seen typically in Communist dictatorships

But we shouldn’t be deceived by this cynical publicity stunt and believe that the expulsion of bishops, priests, and seminarians is the result of a friendly deal between the regime and the Holy See. The Vatican chancellor, Archbishop Paul Gallagher, said during a press conference in January: “It is clear that negotiating for the release of these priests from Nicaragua was not very easy.”

He admitted that he was not fully aware of the details, as he was not a direct part of the negotiations and apologised for not being able to give precise information. For many of us, this has been a way for the regime to distract the world from their intention to annihilate the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.

Many questions have been raised regarding the Vatican’s strategy to opt for dialogue and negotiation with the regime, but as Sir Winston Churchill once noted, “you cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in its mouth.”

Unfortunately, it is the criminal Ortega-Murillo regime who are calling the shots. They have been waging their “unholy war” against the Catholic Church for years now and there is little sign of it stopping.

Nicaraguan Catholic faithful in 2018 take part in an open air mass to demand the end of violence in their country (AFP/Getty)
Nicaraguan Catholic faithful in 2018 take part in an open air mass to demand the end of violence in their country (AFP/Getty)

For the regime, they see the Church as the country’s last bastion of opposition against their dictatorship. They have focused their violent and relentless attacks on religious leaders because they know how loved and respected they are by the people of Nicaragua. Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo know that these courageous leaders are unflinching in denouncing and condemning the systematic human rights violations perpetrated against the people of Nicaragua.

It couldn’t be put more eloquently than by Monsignor Baez, who has become the prophetic voice of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church in exile in Miami. In a speech last December, he said: “The tyrants are aware that the Nicaraguan people love their Church and their pastors, and those who rule are terrified of the existence of a people awakened and mobilised by the Christian faith because they are a people who are critical, liberated, and the subject of their own history.’

One only has to look at the names of the 2 bishops, 15 priests and two seminarians on the plane to Rome to see how the Church in Nicaragua has been depleted. On 9 January 2024, according to the independent media outlet, Confidencial, more than 200 clergy have been persecuted, exiled, or imprisoned by the Ortega-Murillo Regime. On 6 March 2022, the Nicaraguan regime expelled the Vatican Nuncio, Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag.

Their report stated: “Ortega has also banished 85 nuns and religious sisters, including those of the Missionaries of Charity of St Teresa of Calcutta, the Daughters of St Louise de Marillac in the Holy Spirit, the Jesus Christ Fraternity of the Poor, and the Dominican Sisters of the Annunciation. They were committed to the service of the poorest in the country.”

Ten days later, it was reported that the parish of Matagalpa alone had lost 40 per cent of its priests. Since 2018, 97 of them have been forced to leave Nicaragua by banishment, exile, expulsion, or because they were prevented from re-entering the country after travelling abroad.

There are also at least 13 deceased priests – including a bishop and a bishop emeritus – bringing the total loss, with data verified by confidential as of 15 January 2024, to the equivalent of 20 per cent of the total clergy registered (as of) in 2020. The Ortega-Murillo regime has also closed and confiscated universities and Catholic education institutions, with one report stating that the state took over 27 universities between December 2021 and August 2023.

Students attend a protest demanding Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo step down (AFP/Getty)
Students attend a protest demanding Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo step down (AFP/Getty)

The devastating consequences caused by the closure and confiscation of Nicaraguan universities, schools, and educational centres administered by the Catholic Church is that thousands of children and young people are now denied access to an education and a professional career. In addition, more than 3,700 NGOs have been stripped of their legal status and many have had their assets confiscated.

Ortega and Murillo are unchecked old-school despots, and the systematic repression of the Catholic Church, along with political dissidents and the free press in Nicaragua, is the type of behaviour that was seen typically in Communist dictatorships of the 20th century.

Their repression is similar to the crackdown on religious freedom in Cuba by Fidel Castro, which shut down Catholic schools and nationalised church property as it battled to quell the threat of counter-revolution. By 1965, only about one-quarter of the Catholic clergy remained in Cuba. Many churches were abandoned, and religious activity virtually came to a halt. We are seeing something almost identical in Nicaragua.

The failure of the international community to impose decisive and effective sanctions has allowed Ortega and Murillo to perpetrate crimes against humanity.

It is not enough to issue statements of condemnation of the regime every time Ortega and Murillo expel Nicaraguans from their own country. It is time for the world to wake up.

On Thursday 8 February 2024 I will be testifying at the inquiry conducted under the auspices of three UK All-Party Parliamentary Groups on the situation in Nicaragua and the ever-growing suppression of the rights of religious leaders and institutions, the media and the opposition. I will be calling for the world to wake up.

Bianca Jagger is Founder, President and Chief Executive of the Human Rights Foundation Council of Europe; Goodwill AmbassadorIUCN; Bonn Challenge Ambassador; and Member of the Executive Director’s Leadership Council of Amnesty International USA

Twitter @BiancaJagger Instagram: @BiancaJaggerTikTok: @BiancaJaggerOfficial Threads: @biancajagger