By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich
President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo’s latest attack against the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has stripped Bishop Rolando Álvarez of his citizenship and sentenced him to 26 years and four months in prison for being a “traitor to the homeland.” Álvarez was charged with “undermining national security and sovereignty,” “spreading fake news,” “obstructing an official in the performance of his duties,” and “aggravated disobedience or contempt of authority.”
Bishop Álvarez has been one of the country’s most outspoken and well-known critics of the Ortega-Murillo regime. The day before the judge issued what was correctly called a “miscarriage of justice” by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Frederick Davie, the regime attempted to exile him from the country along with hundreds of political prisoners. On February 9, 222 prisoners were forced into exile, including political leaders, priests, students, and activists – but Bishop Álvarez refused to leave.
In an amazing act of courage, Bishop Álvarez opted to remain in Nicaragua, and as U.S. Representative Chris Smith said, “refuses to abandon his flock.”
For President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, religious freedom, particularly for Catholics who make up about 50 percent of the country’s population, poses a significant threat to their grip on power.
“The Catholic Church, I think, is one of the main institutions that the Ortega regime really, really fears,” according to Antonio Garrastazu, the regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute. “The Catholic Church are really the ones that can actually change the hearts and minds of the people.”
The atrocities against the Catholic Church have intensified in recent years. In 2018, when nationwide protests opposing reforms to the public pension system were violently suppressed by the regime, the Catholic clergy’s support for the protestors resulted in heightened persecution against the Church.
In the last year, the regime eliminated Church-affiliated organizations, shut down Catholic radio stations, expelled the papal nuncio, and directly persecuted Catholic clergy.
However, the targeting of Catholic leaders who oppose the regime is not a new occurrence. As Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation wrote, “The Sandinista revolutionary-turned-dictator Ortega, who returned to power in 2007 after ruling Nicaragua over a decade in the 1980s, never has been favorable toward the Catholic Church.”
In 1979, Nicaragua’s authoritarian regime was overthrown by socialist guerilla leader Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front. Following the Sandinista’s seizure of power, Ortega placed numerous priests that subscribed to and promoted Marxist liberation theology in ministerial government positions.
The involvement of these priests with the Sandinista government eventually led to a split with the bishops in 1980. When Saint Pope John Paul II met with Nicaragua’s bishops in April 1980 at the Vatican, he said to them, “an atheist ideology cannot be the guiding instrument of the effort to promote social justice, because it deprives man of his freedom, of spiritual inspiration, and of the strength to love his brother, which has its most solid and operative foundation in the love of God.”
After the priests refused to resign from government, they were suspended a divinis, which is an indefinite suspension of the ability to celebrate Mass, hear confessions, or conduct other priestly duties.
The regime ruthlessly went after Father Bismarck Carballo, who was a critic of the government and director of a Catholic radio station. In 1982, the Ortega regime staged a scandal involving Carballo and threw him naked on the street. Two years later, Ortega expelled 10 foreign priests who had criticized and opposed the government.
Today, just as in the 1980s, Ortega and his wife are working to remove and eliminate opposition to their dictatorship. As U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Commissioner Frank Wolf said, “The U.S. government should use every tool at their disposal to encourage the restoration of democracy and human rights in Nicaragua.”
The recent sentencing of Bishop Álvarez makes clear that the United States must call for his release and hold the Ortega-Murillo regime accountable for the repression of its people and its persecution of the Catholic Church.