Deporting hundreds of opponents is the latest step
Nigeria, China and Pakistan are not the only countries where Christians are persecuted today. In Nicaragua, a Central American republic of about 6 million, the government is savagely suppressing dissent.
The President, Daniel Ortega, views the Catholic Church as a threat to his increasingly dictatorial hold on the country has governed since 2006. Late last year he gave an extraordinary speech denouncing it as a “perfect dictatorship”.
“Who elects the priests, who elects the bishops, who elects the pope, the cardinals, how many votes, who gives them to them? If they are going to be democratic, let Catholic vote … It is a dictatorship, a perfect dictatorship, a perfect tyranny,” he said.
The latest move against the Church took place last week.
About 220 people, including four priests, student activists, business people, journalists, and political opponents, were taken from detention, stripped of their citizenship, pushed onto a plane, and deported to Washington DC. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that this “marks a constructive step toward addressing human rights abuses in the country and opens the door to further dialogue.”
However, a thorn in Ortega’s side, the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Alvarez, refused to leave the country. He was subsequently sentenced to 26 years in jail as a “traitor to the homeland.”
Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla, has become increasingly authoritarian. As a consequence, the Catholic Church has become an active voice in the struggle against his socialist tyranny. In response, the regime has turned churches into battlegrounds. At one stage, the government even banned masses and priests had to give Communion through fences. Devotional statues have bullet wounds.
Bishop Alvarez became a leading voice of resistance to Ortega. A trial was originally scheduled for March. But the government unexpectedly moved the date and included him in the deportation.
The auxiliary bishop of Managua, the capital, Silvio Baez, is another casualty of Ortega’s crackdown. He had to leave the country in 2019 after the US Embassy released audio recordings in which the government threatened to kill him.
Initially he was summoned by the Pope to Rome. Now he is in the US, preaching against the regime. He declared on Twitter: “Irrational and unbridled hatred of the Nicaraguan dictatorship against Bishop Rolando Alvarez. They are vengeful against him. They have not withstood his moral height and his prophetic coherence. Rolando will be free, God will not abandon him. They sink every day in their fear and evil.”.
Bishop Alvarez was active both in the pulpit and on social media, where he had 100,000 followers on Twitter. In August he was arrested along with fellow priests, seminarians and a photographer. They were all found guilty and sentenced to prison. The priests are Ramiro Tijerino Chávez, general rector of the Juan Pablo II University; José Luis Díaz Cruz, vicar of the Cathedral of Matagalpa and his predecessor Sadiel Antonio Eugarrios Cano; Deacon Raúl Antonio Vega; seminarians Darvin Leiva Mendoza and Melkin Centeno; as well as photojournalist Sergio Cadena Flores, who worked as a cameraman.
Catholic journalists have been persecuted. In August the government closed down seven catholic radio stations in a single day before kidnapping Monsignor Alvarez. “They have closed all our radio stations. But they will not silence the Word of God”, he said. .
In the past year and a half, the government has been busy with expulsions. These include the Vatican nuncio and 18 of Mother Teresa’s nuns.
“As one of the most Catholic countries in the region, the Church is a weighty player that can challenge the pro-government narrative. The attacks on its members show how far Ortega and [his wife, Vice-President Rosario] Murillo are willing to go in their irrational repression of critical voices,” the deputy director for the Americas of Human Rights Watch, Tamara Taraciuk, told France 24.
“It is the last line of defence for civil expression that remains in the country,” added Juan Diego Barberena, a member of the Political Council of National Unity, the broadest opposition movement in Nicaragua.
“There is a terrible contrast between that noble, peaceful voice that is Bishop Álvarez, and the barbarity of the state action against him,” says Pedro Vaca, Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Nicaragua is on the list of the top 50 countries for religious persecution. The US Department of State has placed it on a special watch list “for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom”. In addition, “the government is particularly hostile to churches that provided shelter and care for people during the widespread protests that broke out against the country’s dictatorial regime in 2018.”
Other churches are persecuted in Nicaragua, but to a lesser degree. About one third of the country is Protestant or Evangelical, but their churches are smaller, more fragmented, and less inclined to engage in politics. According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the government exerted pressure on Protestants by increasing taxes on institutions, scrutinizing foreign funding, and harassing pastors who spoke out against government abuses.
University students are one of the regime’s prime targets so Protestant-run universities have been under attack. With the National Assembly controlled by Ortega, it agreed unanimously to nationalise six private universities.
It was against abuses such as those that Bishop Alvarez fought strongly. Contrary to the regime’s accusations, he is no traitor. In fact, he chose to go to prison instead of renouncing his citizenship. He became a living testimony to the Truth that sets you free.