After the arrest of a bishop and 11 others, police continued to harass Nicaraguan Catholics, even as Pope Francis called for “open and sincere” dialogue in the Central American country.
Photos posted on social media showed police and paramilitaries surrounding St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Masaya, Nicaragua on August 21 – the same day Pope Francis expressed “concern and sadness” for the situation in Nicaragua, where the Catholic Church has suffered increasing persecution. of President Daniel Ortega‘s regime.
Bishop Rolando Álvarez de Matagalpa remains under house arrest in Managua after being arrested in an August 19 raid on diocesan offices. The other 11 priests and lay people arrested alongside the bishop continue to languish in the notorious political prison of El Chipote.
Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua visited Bishop Álvarez on August 19 and described the bishop as “physically deteriorated, but spiritually strong,” according to the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua. The bishops’ statement was moderate – a reflection of the risks of speaking out in Nicaragua, although prelates outside the country have been more vocal.
“I want to tell Nicaraguans not to give up hope; trust in the Lord and pray for Archbishop Rolando Álvarez and the priests of Matagalpa and the others who are imprisoned with other lay people, and all the political prisoners of these countries,” Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez said in his homily from 21st of August. , delivered to Miami, where he is exiled.
His comments followed Pope Francis’ call for dialogue in Nicaragua, where the Church’s charitable projects have been banned, priests arrested and prevented from celebrating Mass and Missionaries of Charity expelled. During his August 21 Angelus address, Pope Francis did not specifically mention the arrest of Bishop Álvarez, but he prayed for peace in the country through the intercession of Mary.
“The Vatican preferred quiet, backdoor engagement with the government to try to persuade it to scale back its repressive tactics and resume talks with the opposition, rather than public condemnation,” said America analyst Tiziano Breda. central for the International Crisis Group.
“It stems from the understanding that the louder and more outspoken the criticism against Ortega…the more livid the reaction from the presidential couple will be, and any weak communication channels that may still be open will likely be closed,” he added. . Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, is vice president.
A priest in Nicaragua, who preferred anonymity for security reasons, called the papal comments “bittersweet”, adding: “They say the pope was not explicit, but at least he broke the silence”.
The pope’s call for dialogue was met with skepticism by many Nicaraguans on social media.
“An ‘open and sincere’ dialogue to restore peaceful coexistence in Nicaragua, as proposed by Pope Francis, is only possible without a police state, without political prisoners and with international guarantors overseeing the agreements,” tweeted the prominent Nicaraguan journalist Carlos F. Chamorro. , editorial director of the press agency Confidential.
Nicaraguan bishops brokered a national dialogue in 2018 after protests erupted demanding Ortega’s ouster. The talks fell through, however, as the bishops saw little goodwill from the government side.
In a 2021 interview with Catholic News Service, Bishop Álvarez defended the dialogues, which he said were held because “Nicaragua was literally bleeding to death, and it was necessary for all parties directly involved to sit down and talk to make an effort to find a solution.”
Bishop Álvarez said of the Church’s experience since 2018: “We lived vividly what the spirit of Pope Francis means when he called us to build a field hospital in the churches, which have since become even more open”.
He continued, “We experienced firsthand what it means to be a Church in exodus, a Church that leaves its parishes, a Church on the periphery accompanying the most vulnerable, the poorest, the simplest, one Church. .. that we have not only experienced conceptually, but experientially.
The National Police said Bishop Álvarez was being investigated for “attempting to organize violent groups, inciting them to perform acts of hatred against the population, causing an environment of chaos and disorder, disturbing the peace and harmony in the community with the aim of destabilizing the Nicaraguan state and attacking the constitutional authorities.
The announcement came on the heels of Bishop Álvarez’s vocal objection to regulators ordering the closure of Catholic radio stations in the Diocese of Matagalpa; parishioners had tried to prevent the police from confiscating equipment.
Around the world, especially in the Americas, Catholic leaders have issued statements expressing their solidarity with the people and the Church of Nicaragua and urging Catholics to pray for peace.
Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee for International Justice and Peace, expressed “our unwavering solidarity with our brethren in the Nicaraguan Episcopate, as well as with their foreign priests and missionaries , in their call to freely proclaim the Gospel and live the faith The faith of the Nicaraguan people, in solidarity with their bishops and priests, is a source of inspiration for all of us.
Bishop José Domingo Ulloa of Panama called for the “immediate release” of Bishop Álvarez, adding that “the aberrant events surrounding this detention are a cause of alarm and pain throughout the Latin American Church.”
The bishops of Puerto Rico have expressed “growing concern that the powers of the state are being used to shut down Catholic radio stations (and) expel clerics who work with the most vulnerable and abused people, while that this same authority is not used to avoid attacks on religious people”. the freedom and destruction of places of worship, mainly Catholic. Noting that the destruction of buildings “is often” followed by attacks on people, the bishops added, “God forbid!
The Cuban bishops thanked the Catholics of Nicaragua for their “witness of fidelity to Christ” manifested in “the communion they maintained in the midst of trials and the serene trust in the risen Lord that they proclaim in these hours of the cross “.
The Bishops of Chile have urged Catholics in their country to pray for peace in Nicaragua, adding, “We join in the call for an end to the violence in this country and the persecution suffered by the Nicaraguan sister Church.” .
Following a statement on the political crisis in Peru, the bishops of that country came out in favor of the Nicaraguan Church, saying: “Violence has never accumulated, it has only sown seeds of poverty and hatred. Violence, especially when unjustified, disrupts the harmony, respect and peace that our peoples need to achieve integral development and friendly social relations.
The Latin American Academy of Catholic Leaders, which includes civic leaders, politicians and former heads of state, called for respect for freedom of expression and worship.
“Freedom of worship and religion is one of the first rights to be recognized, respected and guaranteed in the history of contemporary law,” they wrote. “This right is a pillar of freedoms, because it is linked to freedom of thought and conscience, and its protection extends to believers and non-believers.
In Italy, the bishops called the arrests of Bishops Alvarez and others “a very serious act which does not leave us indifferent and which leads us to remain vigilant about what is happening to our brothers and sisters in the faith.”
“The circumstances and context of such arrests are of particular concern, not only because (they) target Christians who are prevented from legitimately exercising their beliefs, but because (they) occur at a time when human rights most basic seem to be highly threatened. »