Bishop Álvarez is Free

By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich

On Jan. 14, it was confirmed that Bishop Rolando Álvarez and 18 other representatives of the Catholic Church were freed after being held as political prisoners by the Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua. 

One individual remained in Venezuela, while the other clerics traveled to the Vatican where they were welcomed as “guests of the Holy See” and met by the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin. 

Bishop Álvarez’s release came after spending 528 days in prison. One of the most outspoken and well-known critics of the regime, Bishop Álvarez was detained in August 2022 for allegedly participating in “destabilizing and provocative activities.”

In February 2023, after courageously refusing to flee the country, he was stripped of his citizenship and sentenced to more than 26 years 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.”

For President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, religious freedom, particularly for Catholics who make up between 41 percent and 50 percent of the country’s population, poses a significant threat to their grip on power.  

According to the Episcopal Secretariat of Central America, “The Catholic Church in Nicaragua is the only voice that [the regime] has not been able to silence, but they intend to silence it and thus leave the Church submerged in silence.”

Pope Francis and prominent U.S. government officials have publicly condemned the injustice being carried out in Nicaragua on numerous occasions. 

In a congressional hearing last fall, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) said, “The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening to the people of Nicaragua—including and especially people of faith.” 

Further, a statement from the U.S. Department of State on Jan. 2, 2024, affirmed, “The Ortega-Murillo regime continues to impose severe restrictions on religious communities and deny Nicaraguan citizens the ability to freely practice their religions and express their beliefs.”

In the annual State of the World address on Jan. 8, Pope Francis brought attention to the country’s “protracted crisis with painful consequences for Nicaraguan society as a whole, and in particular for the Catholic Church.”

Though the release of these wrongfully detained Catholic clerics is a triumph, the situation for Catholics in Nicaragua still remains dire. 

The Nicaraguan government’s recent move to cancel the legal status of 16 non-governmental organizations – 10 of which are Catholic or evangelical – makes clear that the Ortega-Murillo regime is still intent on silencing the Church.

Since 2018, more than 3,500 non-governmental organizations have been shuttered by the regime. Additionally, Nicaragua expelled the papal nuncio and severed diplomatic ties with the Holy See (though Pope Francis said the Vatican maintains a “diplomatic dialogue for the benefit of Catholics and the entire population”). 

Last year, the government ordered the Red Cross to halt work in the country and expelled the Missionaries of Charity and the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuit Order. 

In the last five years, approximately 110 priests have been deported while others have fled the country. Though the exact figure is not known, an estimated 15 percent of Nicaragua’s Catholic clergy have been forced into exile. According to local sources, Bishop Álvarez’s diocese, Matagalpa, now has only approximately 20 priests serving the faithful, a dramatic decrease from 51 in 2019.

While it is fortunate that Bishop Álvarez and others have been released, it is a tragedy that the Ortega-Murillo regime refuses to allow them to serve Nicaragua’s Catholic community. 

The freedom of Bishop Rolando Álvarez and 18 others is a remarkable diplomatic achievement.  However, the international community must continue to call for religious freedom for all Nicaraguans.