Editor’s note: This article is intended to provide people in the English-speaking world with a comprehensive introduction to the situation of the Church in Nicaragua in recent years, including the latest developments. The author of this article, “Carmelita,” is better known as Carmelite Quotes on X and on her blog, carmelitequotes.blog.
As people of faith who are committed the principles of Catholic social teaching, we cannot turn a blind eye to the horrifying reality unfolding in Nicaragua. The unspeakable human rights abuses suffered by Bishop Rolando Alvarez and countless others at the hands of the Ortega regime are not just an affront to the Catholic Church, but a profound violation of basic human dignity. We pray that our readers will stand informed and united in calling for an end to these horrifying injustices in Nicaragua.
To learn more about the Church in Nicaragua and about Bishop Alvarez, please join me as I take part in a live discussion hosted by Carmelite Quotes on X (formerly Twitter Spaces), Sunday night at 6:30 p.m. Eastern, 3:30 p.m. Pacific. The discussion will be simulcast on YouTube and Facebook, and those details will be provided when available. —ML
Did you know that a Catholic bishop is sitting in solitary confinement, imprisoned by a dictatorship?
Most people aren’t aware that Bishop Rolando Alvarez of the Matagalpa diocese has been unjustly detained by Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista dictatorship in Nicaragua for over one year. He was charged with crimes that were invented by Nicaraguan legislators months earlier.
On August 4, 2022, Bishop Alvarez’s residence and diocesan offices in Matagalpa were surrounded by the Nicaraguan National Police; he was prevented from leaving the property to celebrate Holy Mass.
There on the street, surrounded by the police, Bishop Alvarez knelt with his arms outstretched in prayer, an image that touched the hearts and minds of those who follow Catholic media around the world.
Days later, on August 19, in the middle of the night, the national police descended on the bishop’s residence and whisked him away to parts unknown. The priests and seminarians who were trapped in the diocesan curia with Bishop Alvarez were sent to El Chipote prison, notorious for torture.
Bishop Alvarez and all of his companions were denied their due process rights. In effect, they were kidnapped.
The bishop, it seemed, was detained in a safe house administered by the national police. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the archbishop of Managua, indicated that he had visited Bishop Alvarez soon after his abduction from Matagalpa. Yet by international human rights standards, Bishop Alvarez was a victim of enforced disappearance.
However, on February 9, 2023, the situation changed dramatically when 222 political prisoners were released in the middle of the night. Loaded on buses, unaware of their surroundings and ignorant of their destination, they were transported to Managua airport and shipped to the United States on a chartered flight.
Instead, the Sandinista dictatorship countered with furious revenge. Since February 9th, Bishop Rolando Alvarez has been detained in solitary confinement at the notorious Jorge Navarro prison in Tipitapa (“La Modelo”), sentenced to more than 26 years in prison.
The cell where the dictatorship has confined Bishop Alvarez in La Modelo prison has been called “the Hellhole” by those who have been jailed there and lived to tell about it.
International human rights experts indicate that La Modelo’s solitary confinement could constitute cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment, or even torture.
The Hellhole has no ventilation and virtually no light. When meager meals are passed to a prisoner through a small opening in the door, the cell is momentarily illuminated.
Furthermore, there are no sanitation facilities; the authorities enable running water only twice daily for 20 minutes. A drain on the floor is the only toilet.
The “bed” in Bishop Alvarez’s cell is a concrete slab.
According to the survivors, the Hellhole’s insect infestation is even worse than the living conditions. The torture they endured continues to haunt the former political prisoners who once occupied the cells and have since been released.
Throughout the past year, the Nicaraguan faithful who dare to express their opinions on social media continue to repeat one question that recurs like a refrain:
Many people are asking, Where is Pope Francis? Why the silence?
Some journalists have openly questioned Pope Francis’s approach. Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald is one example. In August 2019, he commented:
It’s hard to decide what is more outrageous: Nicaragua’s dictator Daniel Ortega’s decision to shut down seven Roman Catholic Church radio stations and hold a bishop and his aides under house arrest, or Pope Francis’ total silence about these attacks on his own people.
The Holy Father finally made a striking statement; it came in an interview with journalist Daniel Hadad from Argentine news outlet Infobae that was published on March 10, 2023. Before the interview ended, Hadad asked Pope Francis to comment on the situation in Latin America, including a question on the situation in Nicaragua. He asked:
The second [question] is about Nicaragua. At first, it seemed that they targeted only the opposition or those who thought differently; in fact, they have just sent 222 opponents into exile. But I can also see a really fierce attack against the Catholic church. They have expelled the nuncio, now they are banning Holy Week processions. And [there’s] this remark by the president about the bishops, the priests, the popes being a mob. What do you think about this?
Pope Francis responded:
With great respect, I have no other choice but to think that the person in power [Daniel Ortega] is mentally unbalanced. We have an incarcerated bishop there, a very responsible man, a very capable man. He wanted to testify and did not accept exile. This is something that is out of line with what we are currently experiencing; it is like bringing back the 1917 communist dictatorship, or the 1935 Hitlerite dictatorship, bringing those back… They are a type of crass dictatorship. Or, to use a nice Argentinean expression, “guarangas.” Uncouth.
After these comments by Pope Francis, two significant events occurred in Nicaragua.
First, the dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega and Co-President Rosario Murillo ordered the closure of the Vatican embassy on March 10th, one year after the expulsion of the Apostolic Nuncio. An article by Vatican News stated, “This is not a break in relations” with Nicaragua’s government, but it certainly appeared to be a step in that direction.
Bishop Alvarez appeared in an elaborately decorated room, dining with his sister and brother. His appearance was gaunt and pale, yet his wry smile and quick wit were not lacking as he countered the cynicism of the interviewer: Do I look good to you? Healthy? How does my face look?
And after only a few minutes, Bishop Alvarez was escorted back to the Hellhole.
Early in July 2023, there were reports that Bishop Alvarez had been released, but more disappointment followed. Despite the attempts to free the bishop, he did not accept the terms of the agreement. Thus, once again he returned to the Hellhole.
Since then, the bishop’s situation has not changed and the Vatican’s negotiations with Ortega’s regime have remained tense, at times even shrouded in silence.
Meanwhile in Nicaragua, women religious have been expelled. Local Catholic clergy report surveillance and beatings. The dictatorship has levied economic sanctions against the Church, freezing diocesan assets and the clergy retirement fund. Clergy who travel abroad are prohibited from re-entering the country. These actions and more have been meticulously researched and documented by Nicaraguan Catholic attorney Martha Patricia Molina.
Now, the Ortega-Murillo regime has shut down and confiscated all the property and assets of the Central American University (UCA) in Nicaragua’s capital, a jewel of higher education in Central America that was founded and administered by the Society of Jesus.
“The unjust, illegal confiscation of the Central American University by the Sandinista dictatorship is outrageous. They are demonstrating their contempt for intellectual freedom, quality education and critical thinking. Every day they sink deeper into their irrationality, evil and fear.”
Now that the Society of Jesus has been profoundly affected by the rabid persecution of the Ortega regime, will the world’s most famous Jesuit speak up once again or perhaps take more decisive action?
Where is Pope Francis?
Image: Bishop Rolando Álvarez kneels in the street after stepping outside his residence in Matagalpa and being surrounded by police on August 4, 2022. Image from the networks of the Diocese of Matagalpa