Nicaragua’s Ortega-Murillo Regime Targets Jesuits

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

In the latest government escalation targeting the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, authorities confiscated the Jesuit-run University of Central America (UCA) and declared the Society of Jesus (Jesuit) religious order illegal.

On August 15, the authoritarian government of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, seized UCA six days after freezing the college’s bank accounts. 

Established in 1960 as the first private university in Central America, UCA is one of the most prestigious colleges in the region. The government levied baseless accusations that the university is allegedly a “center of terrorism,” even though several of Ortega’s children previously attended the college.

In reality, UCA hosts the “main documentation and memory center in the country, equipped with its own library, a newspaper library, and valuable photographic archives,” and educates an estimated 8,000 of Nicaragua’s 200,000 university students. 

“With this confiscation, the Ortega government has buried freedom of thought in Nicaragua,” according to María Asunción Moreno, a former UCA professor who was forced into exile in 2021.

It’s clear why the dictatorship has moved to forcibly turn this esteemed university into a state-controlled institution.

The week following the UCA seizure, the Ortega-Murillo regime canceled the legal status of the Jesuits, the religious order of which Pope Francis is a member. Citing allegations that the Jesuits did not comply with tax reporting, the regime additionally ordered the confiscation of its property and assets.

The future of the Jesuits in Nicaragua remains unclear. As discussed, the legal status of two Jesuit entities has been revoked, but 11 members of the religious order have remained in Nicaragua to continue the important work of the Society of Jesus in the poverty-stricken country. 

As of this writing, two schools and Fe y Alegría (“Faith and Joy”), a Jesuit education initiative that serves at-risk primary school students, remain active. According to José Maria Tojeira, S.J., a spokesperson for the Central American Province of the Society of Jesus in El Salvador, “Given practically the total absence of the rule of law in Nicaragua, anything can happen.”

Despite such fear of uncertainty, Father Tojeira said, “The Jesuits continue in their jobs in the midst of these difficulties,” and added, “We will remain to work for a true democracy—participatory, inclusive, one that defends human rights, that helps to escape poverty [and] injustice.”

The words of Father Tojeira strike at the heart of what it means to serve the “greater glory of God” as a Jesuit. 

Founded in 1534 by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus is the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church, made up of more than 16,000 priests, brothers, scholastics, and novices around the world. 

Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, as well as a fourth vow of obedience to worldwide mission. According to the Jesuit website, “Jesuits must be ready to accept whatever mission the Pope requires, a vow that is reflective of our broader dedication to the universal Church, and to the greater good of all people from all faiths and cultures.”

Though the religious order has a long history of providing aid to the poor and establishing educational centers in Nicaragua, Jesuit criticism of Ortega in recent decades has proven to be a challenge to the regime’s continued consolidation of power.

Tragically, the Jesuits are among the more than 3,000 civic groups and non-governmental organizations that have been outlawed or closed by the government. Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta’s Missionaries of Charity was expelled in 2022, and the Nicaraguan Red Cross was ordered to be shut down in May 2023. 

The United States government must continue to bring attention to the violations of liberty and religious freedom in Nicaragua and call for an end to the abuses of the Ortega-Murillo regime.