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AFTER days of persecution of one of his priests, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa went out to the street outside the diocesan curia with the Blessed Sacrament to bless those who accompanied him and the policemen who prevented him from entering the place. At that moment, Bishop Álvarez called for a mass and holy hour in the Cathedral at 4 p.m., only then was he allowed to enter the curia.
He did not know that he was under indefinite house arrest.
What is happening to the Catholic Church in Nicaragua?
The persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua dates back to at least 2018 when attacks began against churches, bishops, priests, and its members for their participation in the protests of that year and for failing to act as a mediator in the negotiations between the regime and the opposition. These actors served as the perfect scapegoats for Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo.
In July 2018, the regime and its paramilitaries attacked a university campus in Managua and a group of people (mostly students) who took refuge in a nearby church, which was besieged for two days by the police. The operation resulted in two deaths.
The remaining students were able to leave the church only when a group of bishops and NGO representatives escorted them to the Managua Cathedral.
That same year, Bishop Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua and one of the most visible faces of the protests, left Nicaragua in exile. He first landed in Rome but departed to Miami, where today he works in the parish of Santa Agata, which has become the spiritual home of hundreds of exiled Nicaraguans in the United States, including Fr. Edwin Román, another Nicaraguan priest exiled by the threats of the regime.
But this was only the beginning. Since then, attacks on churches and threats to priests began to become more common.
According to the report Nicaragua: ¿Una Iglesia Perseguida? (Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church?), there were 190 attacks on the Catholic Church between 2018 and 2022.
And in 2022, persecution has reached a new level.
In March, the apostolic nuncio (the Vatican ambassador) Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, a man generally open to dialogue with the regime, hardly considered a radical, was declared persona non grata by the Ortega dictatorship and expelled from the country without further explanation.
This was only the prelude.
Since then, Ortega’s socialist regime has imprisoned two priests, placed two others under siege within their parish, expelled the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and closed a Catholic television station and 10 radio stations.
Now he is threatening to imprison a bishop, something completely unprecedented, not even seen at the worst point of the Sandinista regime’s persecution 43 years ago.
Who is Bishop Rolando Álvarez?
Monsignor Rolando Álvarez is the bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa and the apostolic administrator of Estelí.
Matagalpa is a city in northern Nicaragua with about 100,000 inhabitants. The diocese also covers surrounding towns and small villages, so Monsignor Álvarez is famous for constantly going to those towns by any means necessary: motorcycle, mule, horse, or boat.
Álvarez was one of the Church’s interlocutors in the first dialogue with the regime in 2018. Because of his positions, he was vetoed by Ortega from subsequent dialogue attempts.
At the same time, he is the director of communications of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua, so among his functions is that of director of the Catholic television channel of that country. Or at least he was until the regime closed it in May.
On May 19, the bishop went to Managua because he said that the police were persecuting him in his diocese, even going to the homes of relatives.
At that moment, Bishop Álvarez declared that he would go on an indefinite fast until the National Police guaranteed his and his family’s safety.
The regime’s response was quick. Only one day later, Claro (the largest private TV provider in the country) announced that Telcor, the telecommunications regulator, ordered it to stop broadcasting the Catholic Channel, directed by Alvarez and where every Sunday his masses, in which he criticized the Ortega regime, were broadcasted.
Closure of Catholic radio stations in Matagalpa
The persecution would get worse. On August 1, Telcor announced the closure of 10 Catholic radio stations, plus a television station and another general content radio station.
The excuses were varied, but the main one was that the stations allegedly did not have the proper permits to operate. All the radio stations were owned by the Diocese of Matagalpa, headed by Álvarez.
Alvarez denied Telcor’s accusations and said that in 2016 he had submitted all updated permits and could resubmit them if given an appointment.
But Telcor turned a deaf ear and sent an official to take the equipment of Radio Católica Sébaco, located in the Divine Mercy parish in that city. The parish has a complex that includes the main church, a chapel dedicated to the Divine Child of Prague, the radio station, the rectory (the priest’s residence), and the San Luis Gonzaga school, all led by the parish priest, Father Uriel Vallejos.
The episode would begin a siege that would last 48 hours.
Vallejos accepted the letter notifying the closure of the station but refused to hand over the equipment without a court order. The official returned minutes later with police officers.
“Friends, faithful come, I am being besieged,” Vallejos posted in a Spanish-language tweet.
Vallejos locked himself and 6 followers in the rectory while hundreds of people took to the streets to protect the parish and were violently repressed in an operation led by the controversial Ramón Avellán, a Nicaraguan Police commissioner sanctioned by the US government due to his role in at least 107 murders during protests in Nicaragua between 2018 and 2019.
A lector of the parish (a person who reads during Mass) was shot in the eye, at least three youths were arrested and dozens of people were beaten by police officers.
The police violated the fence leading to the chapel and opened a hole in the roof to take away the radio equipment. They also cut off the electricity so that Vallejos could not continue transmitting the siege with the church’s security cameras and occupied the rectory’s kitchen so that Vallejos had no access to food other than a little water, juice, and cookies.
The parish priest denounced that the policemen violently entered his office at the school and stole numerous pieces of sound equipment.
The situation, which began on Monday, August 1, would end on the night of Wednesday, August 3, when Vallejos was escorted by a retinue of at least 12 priests to a yet unknown location.
Simultaneously, another situation was developing. In apparent response to the declarations of Monsignor Álvarez in his homilies protesting the closing of the radio stations, the police presence in the vicinity of the diocesan curia increased progressively since Wednesday.
The world has already seen the images of Álvarez outside the curia building with the Blessed Sacrament blessing anyone who approached in protest because they would not let him enter the place.
Later he would enter, and since then he has not been able to leave.
On August 5, the Nicaraguan National Police announced a criminal investigation against Alvarez because “taking advantage of his status as a [religious leader] (…) he is trying to organize violent groups, inciting them to carry out acts of hatred against the population.”
“The National Police, as the competent authority to guarantee peace and citizen security (…), has initiated an investigation process with the purpose of determining the criminal responsibility of the persons involved in the commission of these criminal acts,” the statement adds.
Curiously, despite the fact that no court order ordering house arrest has been made public, the order states that “the persons under investigation will remain in their homes”, which explains why Alvarez is not allowed to leave the curia.
While the regime accused Bishop Álvarez of violent acts, the monsignor was found singing and dancing to religious music on a Facebook stream from his house arrest.
So far, the Vatican has not commented on this situation. Although some Catholics in the country criticize the silence of Pope Francis, others fear that a frontal statement will cause even greater persecution against the Church in the country and also hasten the already foreseeable imprisonment of Álvarez.
Estas personas encabezadas por monseñor Rolando Álvarez están bajo investigación, según la policía de Nicaragua por "organizar grupos violentos que incitan a actos de odio". Esto es lo que están haciendo esta noche. (De fondo un retrato de monseñor Romero, mártir de la iglesia) pic.twitter.com/N3FMU4iThu
— Houston Castillo (@HoustonTexasni) August 6, 2022
In a mass celebrated since his informal arrest, Monsignor Álvarez said that “Christ is not a fashion. Everything ends, but God is eternal, God remains, Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes,”
Then, he read a letter to the priests of the dioceses of Matagalpa and Estelí: “Priests of the Lord, I know that heavy is the burden, that it is a lot of weight for our shoulders, but the Lord already said it: my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Edgar is political scientist and philosopher. He defends the Catholic intellectual tradition. Edgar writes about religion, ideology, culture, US politics, abortion, and the Supreme Court. Twitter: @edgarjbb_ // Edgar es politólogo y filósofo. Defiende la tradición intelectual católica. Edgar escribe sobre religión, ideología, cultura, política doméstica, aborto y la Corte Suprema. Twitter: @edgarjbb_