NICARAGUA: Over a dozen Catholic clergymen in jail

By Willy Fautré, director of Human Rights Without Frontiers

HRWF (08.01.2024) – In Nicaragua, 2023 ended with more than a dozen Catholic clergy in jail, the USCIRF Database of religious prisoners documenting 17 cases as of 8 January 2024. President Daniel Ortega is reported to have “ordered the arrest of, forced into exile, and verbally attacked priests and bishops, labeled them ‘criminals’ and ‘coup-plotters,’ and accused them of inciting violence.” The most recent arrests took place on New Year’s Eve.


Six former employees of Caritas sentenced to six years in prison

A new report says that as 2024 begins, the Ortega regime has arrested and detains 2 bishops, 15 priests and 2 seminarians.


On 24 December 2023 (Christmas Eve), the government sentenced to six years imprisonment on dubious money laundering charges six lay staff members from a now-closed diocesan chapter of the Catholic charity Caritas:  Julio Sevilla, Julio Berríos, Bladimir Pallés, María Verónica Herrera Galeano, Freydell Andino, and Mariví Andino.


This follows several other attacks against religious leaders over the months, including the sentencing of Bishop Rolando Álvarez to 26 years imprisonment, expelling religious prisoners of conscience to the United States and the Vatican, and shuttering Catholic charitable and educational institutions such as the Jesuit-run University of Central America.


Bishop Rolando Alvarez sentenced to 26 years in prison

Rolando Álvarez, bishop of the Matagalpa diocese, is imprisoned for criticizing religious freedom conditions.


On 4 August 2022, police prevented Álvarez from leaving his home to perform mass at a local cathedral after he criticized the government’s closure of several Catholic radio stations and its human rights record. Álvarez remained under de facto house arrest as authorities investigated him for “organizing violent groups” and encouraging them “to carry out acts of hate against the population.”


On 19 August 2022, police arrested Álvarez from his residence. It is reported that he was taken to Managua and placed under house arrest in his parents’ home.


In December 2022, a court ordered that Álvarez remain under house arrest on charges of “conspiracy” and “spreading false news.” He was also accused of “damaging the Nicaraguan government and society.”


On 10 February 2023, a court sentenced Álvarez to 26 years in prison after he declined to be exiled to the United States the day before. Álvarez was reportedly convicted of several charges, including treason, undermining national integrity and spreading false news. He was also fined and stripped of his citizenship.


Álvarez is imprisoned at Sistema Penitenciario Nacional Jorge Navarro in Tipitapa.


Around Christmas 2023, the government arbitrarily arrested and detained Bishop Isidro Mora (on 20 December), Father Pablo Villafranca (on 26 December) and Father Silvio Fonseca (on 29 December), each of whom offered prayers for the wrongfully imprisoned Bishop Rolando Álvarez prior to their arrests. (Source: USCIRF).


Statement of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Recent months (and years) have seen a crackdown by the Nicaraguan government against religious leaders and religious institutions in the country.


Martha Patricia Molina, a Nicaraguan lawyer and author of the study Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church? reports that the Ortega government has carried out more than 770 arrests, attacks, expropriations and harassments against the Catholic Church, including “impediments to processions, prayers, masses in cemeteries,” as well as spread hate messages, since 2018.


2022 saw shutdowns and confiscations of assets belonging to several organizations linked to the Roman Catholic Church, including the Catholic University of Dry Tropic Farming and Livestock, several schools in the Estelí diocese, and Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity, whose members were expelled from Nicaragua.


Because of these attacks, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned the “escalating repression against members of the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua.”


IACHR classified the acts as “systematic persecution, criminalization, harassment, police hounding, stigmatizing comments by State authorities, and, more generally, acts of repression targeting members of the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua, due to its mediation efforts in the national talks of 2018 and its critical position to denounce human rights violations committed in the context of Nicaragua’s ongoing crisis.”


Nicaragua, a Country of Particular Concern in Washington

On 4 January 2024, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a statement strongly condemning the Nicaraguan government. USCIRF Vice Chair Frederick A. Davie said that “USCIRF is outraged that the Nicaraguan government has chosen to continue its brutal crackdown on members of the Catholic Church for speaking out about the religious freedom and human rights violations occurring in the country.”


USCIRF Commissioner Frank Wolf added: “We urge the U.S. Congress to help stem these egregious religious freedom violations and hold violators accountable by passing the bipartisan Restoring Sovereignty and Human Rights in Nicaragua Act of 2023. This bill expands the U.S. government’s ability to sanction officials responsible for religious freedom and human rights violations and ensures the U.S. government’s support for the United Nations Group of Human Rights Experts on Nicaragua, which is working diligently to investigate all alleged human rights violations and abuses committed in the country since 2018.”


Because of the dire situation in Nicaragua, in its 2023 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended the U.S. Department of State redesignate Nicaragua as a Country of Particular Concern for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.


On 4 January 2024, Secretary Blinken ultimately announced that he designated Nicaragua, among other countries, as a Country of Particular Concern (CRC) for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.


Photo: Old Catholic Cathedral in Managua (Wikimedia)

Further reading about FORB in Nicaragua on HRWF website