Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application
According to its Preamble, the Constitution of Nicaragua emanates from the Nicaraguan people in the name, and of “the Christians who inspired by their belief in God have joined and committed themselves to the struggle for the liberation of the oppressed”.
Under Article 4, the state is responsible for “promoting the human development of each and every Nicaraguan, inspired by Christian values”.
In its foreign policy, Nicaragua rejects “all forms of political, military, economic, cultural, or religious aggression”; therefore, interfering in the internal affairs of other states is forbidden (Article 5).
The nation’s principles include the recognition of indigenous peoples and Nicaraguans of African descent as well as respect for human dignity and Christian values (Article 5). A law of August 2021 punishes discrimination against members of these groups and encourages them to seek positions in the public sector and the administration.
The state has no official religion (Article 14). Under Article 27, everyone is equal before the law, and the state should not discriminate on religious, or any other, grounds.
Members of the clergy cannot run for President, Vice-President or for the National Assembly unless they resign their ministry at least twelve months before the election (Article 134).
Article 29 stipulates that, “Everyone has the right to freedom of conscience and thought and to profess or not profess a religion. No one shall be the object of coercive measures which diminish these rights or be compelled to declare his/her creed, ideology or beliefs.”
Among various social groups, men and women religious have the right to establish organisations with “the goal of realizing their aspirations” (Article 49). Likewise, “All persons, either individually or in a group, have the right to manifest their religious beliefs in public or private, through worship, practices and teachings (Article 69).”
Article 124 stipulates that “Education in Nicaragua is secular”; nevertheless, the state “recognizes the right of private education centres with a religious orientation to teach religion as an extracurricular subject.”
Communities on the Caribbean coast are guaranteed a high level of autonomy to develop in accordance with their own historical and cultural traditions. Article 180 guarantees them the right to preserve “their cultures and languages, religions and customs.”
In November 2021, the position of the Dean of the Diplomatic Corps, historically occupied by the Apostolic Nuncio, was eliminated.
A general law was passed to regulate and control non-profit organisations, including religious and charitable organisations. Displaying political propaganda in churches and other places of worship is banned.
Nicaragua is a signatory to the Pact of San José, Costa Rica, which recognises freedom of conscience and religion (Article 12).
Incidents and developments
The period under review has been characterised by tensions and hostilities, particularly between the government and the Catholic Church ever since Church leaders, during the civil society protests of 2018, denounced human rights abuses and the weakening of democracy.
In June 2021 as well as in November 2021 (on the eve of the elections on 8 November), the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nicaragua (Conferencia Episcopal Nicaragüense, CEN) called for an end to restrictions on civil liberties and the persecution of opponents.
In July, the Archdiocese of Managua called for the release of opposition leaders, including six presidential candidates who were jailed “for alleged treason”. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes urged the authorities to hold free elections, warning that the political crisis would drive young people abroad. President Ortega reacted by accusing Catholic leaders of being “hypocrites, faith peddlers, false Pharisees,” and of blessing “‘coup plotters’ and ‘terrorists’”.
In July 2021, the mayor of Managua criticised the decision of Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes to suspend the procession of Santo Domingo de Guzmán due to his health, announcing that the celebrations would take place anyway with another image of the saint.
In October, the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua denounced the politicisation of the COVID-19 pandemic. This followed criticism levelled by the COVID-19 Citizen Observatory, a group of doctors and volunteers against “political secretaries who threaten to restrict the right to the vaccine based on political ideology” and the presence of political propaganda by President Ortega’s own party, the Sandinista Front, near vaccination centres and hospitals.
In November 2021, the Church reiterated its offer to mediate between the government and the opposition to help the country emerge from the political crisis in which it has been mired since 2018. President Ortega refused the offer and did not release political prisoners to ease tensions with the opposition.
In January 2022, President Daniel Ortega took office for a fifth time, following elections that international observers considered fraudulent.
On 5 February 2022, an article in the Times of Israel reported on the growing preoccupation by the Nicaraguan Jewish community about the influence of Iran - an enemy of the State of Israel - in Latin America, and in Nicaragua in particular.
On 2 April 2022, the President and his wife sent fraternal salutations to the Islamic community of Nicaragua at the beginning of Ramadan.
In May 2022, the National Assembly, controlled by Ortega’s party, published a report in which it accused bishops and priests of involvement in a coup attempt. The document also called for the prosecution of religious leaders who supported the 2018 demonstrations, and for the seizure of Church assets.
Several priests reported being harassed during the period under review. In May 2022, Fr Hervin Padilla denounced the endless harassment he has had to endure, referring to the permanent presence of police and paramilitaries at the doors of his church in Masaya. He was able to escape the “prison-like parish” with the help of other priests. Fr Padilla stated that his was not an isolated case.
The same month, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa communicated via social media to denounce the persecution experienced at the hands of the Sandinista police and to announce his decision to fast until the police promised to “respect his integrity and that of his family.”
Backed by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nicaragua, the Diocese of Matagalpa issued a statement of support for Bishop Álvarez. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes expressed his solidarity and support for the members of the clergy persecuted by police.
At 3 AM on 19 August, the police forcibly entered the Bishop’s See in Matagalpa and arrested Bishop Álvarez, along with eight other religious and a layman, on charges of "destabilising and provocative activities.” The bishop was taken to his family home in Managua and placed under house arrest. The remaining detainees were taken to El Chipote prison, which is known as a “place of torture”.
In addition to support from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nicaragua and the Archdiocese of Managua, the arrest led to a show of support and offers of help from outside Nicaragua, namely from the Bishops’ Secretariat of Central America, other Ibero-American dioceses, and the Catholic Church in the United States and Italy.
The Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights condemned the arrests and UN Secretary General António Guterres stated he was “very concerned” and called on the authorities to release all those arbitrarily detained.
In June 2022, Fr Manuel Salvador García, a parish priest in Nandaime and a vocal critic of the Ortega regime, was arrested and supposedly taken to the El Chipote prison. Since then, nothing has been heard of him. In the months leading up to his arrest, Fr García was the target of a smear campaign, which included accusations that he had assaulted a woman.
On 1 August 2022, Fr Uriel Vallejos tweeted that riot police had laid siege and attacked the parish of the Divine Mercy of Sébaco in order to seize the equipment of a Catholic radio station. This followed a decision by the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Post (Instituto Nicaragüense de Telecomunicaciones y Correos, TELCOR) to ban five Catholic radio stations run by the Diocese of Matagalpa. Scores were injured during the violent raid and 12 parishioners were arrested. Subsequently, the priest was forced to leave the country.
Also in August, Fr Óscar Benavídez, parish priest at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Mulukukú, a municipality in the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region, was arrested for unknown reasons after celebrating Sunday Mass and was transferred to El Chipote prison.
This wave of arrests has led several priests from different Nicaraguan dioceses, as well as the President of the Conference of Jesuit Provincials of Latin America and the Caribbean, to demand that the government halt the persecution of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and to respect religious freedom in the country.
In September 2022, President Ortega called the Catholic Church a “perfect dictatorship” and again accused Pope Francis of using Nicaragua’s bishops to stage a coup. Bishop Silvio José Báez responded on Twitter, questioning a dictator’s right to give lessons in democracy.
According to Open Doors, 22 Christian leaders have been arrested since 2021, while the Churches have been subjected to strict bureaucratic controls, forcing them to close their offices and bodies under the pretext of irregularities. Meanwhile, there is talk of a new law setting out a new agency in order to centralise this control.
Expulsions and travel restrictions on members of the clergy to and from the country
The expulsion of Fr Uriel Vallejos was not the only forced departure from Nicaragua of members of the clergy in 2022. On 12 March, without explanation, the government withdrew its approval of the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, forcing him to immediately leave the country, despite protests from the Holy See.
Monsignor Silvio Fonseca publicly denounced immigration authorities for withholding his passport for months, preventing him from leaving the country. In April, the government barred an Evangelical pastor, Rev. Tom Guess, who had apparently prophesied imminent “change” in the country, from entering Nicaragua. In September, a Nicaraguan priest returning from Israel, Fr Guillermo Blandón of the Church of Santa Lucia de Boaco, was barred from entering the country.
Church personnel are being forced to leave the country due to government decisions to cancel the legal personality of many NGOs. In July, members of the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa of Kolkata (Calcutta) were forced to leave the country. So too the Sisters of the Cross of the Sacred Heart of Jesus were expelled in September without any official explanation, although it seems this was in response to their decision to refuse to provide information about the lay people who worked with them.
Cancellation of legal status
In 2022, the Ortega regime decided to cancel the legal personality of many NGOs on the grounds that they did not comply with existing regulations.
In February 2022, the National Assembly approved decrees 8786 and 8787 to shut down 16 civil organisations, many of them confessional in nature, including two universities: the Polytechnic University of Nicaragua (Universidad Politécnica de Nicaragua, UPOLI), which is associated with the Baptist Convention of Nicaragua, and was involved in 2018 anti-government protests; and the Catholic Agricultural University of the Dry Tropics (Universidad Católica Agropecuaria del Trópico Seco, UCATSE), which is associated with the Diocese of Estelí.
According to reports by CNN Español, the decision was taken based on a report by the Ministry of the Interior, according to which these associations and foundations hindered the control and supervision by the Department of Registration and Control of Non-Profit Civil Associations.
More decrees followed in June and July 2022: No. 8801(3); 8802(96); 8805(93); 8807(97); 8811(101); 8812(100); and 8823(100). These resulted in the dissolution of another 670 organisations, several of which were religious entities.
One of the most notorious cases involved the aforementioned Missionaries of Charity. According to Vatican News, they were expelled based on a report by the General Directorate of Registration and Control of Non-Profit Entities of the Ministry of the Interior, which claimed that the nuns had breached certain legal obligations and violated regulations against money laundering, funding terrorism and financing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
The Archbishop of Managua and the Latin American Confederation of Religious denounced the decision, stating that the nuns had aided the neediest and most neglected Nicaraguans for over 40 years.
Closure of Catholic radio and TV stations
In November 2021, in an ostensibly arbitrary move, TELCOR cancelled the license of Enlace Canal 21, hosted by Evangelical pastor Guillermo Osorno, who had run as a candidate in the 2021 presidential elections and had denounced electoral fraud.
In May 2022, TELCOR proceeded to suspend Canal 51, the channel of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nicaragua, a day after Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa denounced his persecution by the Ortega regime. In June, TV Merced, a channel operated by the Diocese of Matagalpa was closed, followed in August by the closure of five radio stations in the same diocese.
In August, Radio Stereo Fe, operated by the Diocese of Estelí, was ordered to immediately cease broadcasting. The decision came the day after the station broadcasted a statement by local clergy concerning the persecution of the Nicaraguan Church, especially that suffered by Bishop Álvarez.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the European Union and the United States, as well as the Inter American Press Association, strongly criticised these closures of TV channels and radio stations.
International reports and condemnations of attacks on freedom of religion and the Catholic Church
The 2020 Report published by the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Nicaragua echoed the continuing violations of religious freedom and attacks against the Catholic Church.
In June 2022, Digital Religion published data on the attacks and acts of desecration against the Catholic Church based on a study by lawyer Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, a member of the Pro-Transparency and Anticorruption Observatory. The analysis, which counted 190 incidents over the 2018–2022 period included 35 instances in 2021, “including desecrations and robberies in churches, as well as insults by Daniel Ortega against Catholic bishops and priests”, and 21 in 2022, notably the harassment of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa.
Also in June, a report on press freedom by Voces del Sur, a network of Latin American civil society groups, documented 73 cases in which this fundamental right was violated, often involving media owned and operated by the Catholic Church.
In August, a group of 26 former heads of state and government from Spain and Latin America issued a statement asking Pope Francis to take a “firm position” against the Ortega regime. During the General Assembly of the United Nations, the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom spoke at a press conference on religious freedom in Nicaragua in September 2022, calling on the Nicaraguan government to respect freedom of religion and release its detainees.
In September 2022, the European Parliament condemned the detention of members of the Catholic Church, including Bishop Rolando Álvarez, demanding the immediate release of all those arbitrarily imprisoned. It also denounced the lack of guarantees in Nicaragua’s legal system and the inhuman treatment of detainees.
Other leading international officials and institutions also expressed their concern about the situation of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua; they include the United Nations Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, the Organisation of American States (OAS), and the Latin American and Caribbean Bishops’ Council (Consejo Episcopal Latinoamericano y Caribeño, CELAM).
Vandalism and bans on religious celebrations in public spaces
In May 2021, the statue of Monsignor José del Carmen Suazo in Madriz was beheaded.
In August 2022, the Managua Cathedral and its immediate vicinity were left in the dark after the main switch of its electrical control system was stolen.
In September 2022, police surrounded the Church of San Jerónimo in Masaya, during the traditional descent (lowering from the altar) of the saint’s statue, and harassed parishioners and members of the clergy.
In August 2022, the police forbade Fr Aníbal Manzanares, a parish priest in Terrabona, from conducting processions and other activities outside the Church of San José de Terrabona. The police further did not allow the procession of the image of Our Lady of Fatima in Managua for “reasons of internal security”.
In September 2022, other celebrations outside churches were not allowed, such as processions in the parishes of San Miguel Arcángel de Managua and San Francisco de Asís de Camoapa, nor was the Evangelical Church allowed to celebrate the 453rd anniversary of the translation of the Bible into Spanish.
Prospects for freedom of religion
Nicaragua’s political crisis has worsened, as has the government’s harassment of any voices of protest including that of the Catholic Church. President Ortega has referred to Bishops and the Pope in harsh terms and has accused them of leading a covert coup.
This distrust of Nicaragua’s political leaders in the Church hierarchy has led to lay people and members of the clergy being monitored and arrested; bishops and priests have been forced into exile and many others locked up in the notorious El Chipote prison; churches have been besieged; priests and religious have been expelled; Catholic media has been shut down; hundreds of NGOs, many of them confessional, have been denied legal personality; and religious celebrations in public spaces have been banned.
Clearly, the regime’s persecution of the Catholic Church is politically and not religiously motivated. The Church has, since 2018, been vocal in its criticism of any repression of civil liberties and the violation of human rights in the country.
Along with all other fundamental rights, freedom of religion in Nicaragua has visibly worsened, as noted by many media outlets, NGOs and national and international figures; the prospects for human rights including religious freedom are profoundly troubling and negative.