Nineteen clerics were released and expelled from the country, adding to the dozens of others who have been exiled in the past few years. The restrictions on religious freedom continue in a country where four out of nine dioceses now have bishops living abroad, says Regina Lynch, executive president of Aid to the Church in Need.
International charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has welcomed the release of 19 clerics who were imprisoned in Nicaragua for speaking out against injustices and human rights violations, or merely for trying to operate freely, but expresses concern over the fact that they have been forced to leave the country and over the ongoing repression of religious freedom in the Latin American state.
The release was announced in an official statement by the Nicaraguan Government, accompanied by a list of names of the released and exiled: two bishops, 15 priests and two seminarians. The group was released on Sunday, 14 January, and arrived in Rome on the same day, with the exception of one, who remained in Venezuela due to health issues.
Those released include the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Alvarez, who had been arrested in August 2022, and in 2023 refused to be exiled to the USA, having been sentenced to 26 years in prison, and the Bishop of Siuna, Isidoro de Carmen Mora Ortega, arrested during a major crackdown in December, for mentioning Alvarez in a homily.
The executive president of Aid to the Church in Need, Regina Lynch, has cautiously welcomed the release of the clerics, noting, however, that concern over religious freedom in Nicaragua remain: “It is good news that Bishop Rolando Alvarez is no longer in prison, although it must not be forgotten that he languished there for 16 months. We hope that he will be able to receive the needed support to recover after the long period of detainment. ACN also rejoices in the release of the remaining bishop, 15 priests and two seminarians who were in prison for a shorter period, but we must highlight how tremendously unjust it is that they have been forced to live apart from their flocks and their families. The uncertainty and the fear among the community is also great.”
The mass release and exile of clerics seems to fit a pattern of behaviour by the regime against the Church and its members. In October 2023, a further 12 priests were released from prison and sent to the Vatican, and another group had already been part of a mass exile to the USA in February 2023.
International pressure, both politically (from Washington to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) and in the media, has been intensifying in recent weeks in a context of repression that has few precedents in Latin America.
The Vatican, on the other hand, has not issued any official statement. Its official media outlet, Vatican News, announced the release, but the tone used in the article stands in stark contrast with the optimism expressed by the Nicaraguan Government’s press release about the relationship between the Holy See and the Latin American government.
A diminishing clergy
The forced exile of this latest wave of priests adds to the growing list of clerics who have to leave the country since the regime began its increased oppression against the Church, and which included the expulsion of Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, in March 2022.
The drainage of priests has already posed pastoral and administrative difficulties in some dioceses. “Three of Nicaragua’s dioceses are now headed by bishops who are in exile, namely Matagalpa and Esteli – which were both headed by Alvarez – and Siuna. Previously, in 2019, the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez Ortega, went into exile over increased security concerns. A further diocese has a bishop over the age of retirement, and the Archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, will be 75 in March”, says Lynch.
Since 2022, 50 priests were arrested at some point. According to some estimates, around 15% of the country’s clergy now live abroad. Some have exiled themselves for fear of arrest, some were deported by the regime, and others still were denied reentry to the country after travelling abroad. The Government has also deported foreign missionaries such as the Sisters of Charity, the order founded by Mother Theresa, which is dedicated to caring for the poorest and most destitute.
“Religious freedom is a cornerstone of liberty, and autocratic regimes always fear the witness and voice of those whose lives are dedicated to living and spreading the Gospel of love. The restrictions on religious freedom continue in a country where four out of nine dioceses now have bishops living abroad. We pray that the Church and the people of Nicaragua will one day be free to speak their minds and to practice their faith without fear or repercussions”, Regina Lynch concluded.