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Churches targeted in Nicaragua  

10 March 2023

Religious liberty is under assault in this Central American country, writes Anna Lee Stangl


Nicaraguan exiles, demonstrating against the detention of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, hold vigil outside San José Metropolitan Cathedral, Costa Rica, in August 2022

Nicaraguan exiles, demonstrating against the detention of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, hold vigil outside San José Metropolitan Cathedral, Costa Rica, in A...

POWER comes in different forms, be they political, military, or financial. Influence is a less tangible concept, but those who hold it — such as media or civil-society organisations — are of concern to leaders of repressive regimes.

If such leaders are unable to co-opt those with influence, they almost always try to silence them. In countries with a highly or even moderately religious population, religious leaders are counted among those with influence. If they resist the authorities’ efforts to co-opt them, and remain independent and faithful to their calling to answer to a higher power, they often become targets.

This is true of Nicaragua, a Central American country with a highly religious population. Daniel Ortega has been President since 2007, and his wife, Rosario Murillo, First Lady since 2007 and Vice-President since 2017. (Previously, President Ortega led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990.)

During the past 16 years, the Ortega-Murillo government and the Sandinista Party that the couple lead have taken control of security forces, including the police and the military, as well as the judiciary and the legislative branches of government.

Since then, elections have been characterised by intimidation of the media and arbitrary detention of opposition candidates at every level. Student protests in 2018 were violently suppressed by the security forces and paramilitary groups armed by the government. Some of the students were enrolled in Roman Catholic and Protestant universities, many of which the government then confiscated.

Initially, Roman Catholic church leaders acted as intermediaries between the government and the protesters. When some of the religious leaders criticised the government’s use of violence against demonstrators, however, they themselves were targeted.

Subsequently, the authorities appear to have become concerned about the influence of religious groups more widely. They have moved their focus on to religious leaders at all levels, from RC bishops to parish priests and Protestant pastors. Intelligence agents have infiltrated congregations to monitor the content of sermons and even of prayers. Religious leaders have reported harassment and threats by government figures and members of the security forces.

DURING 2021 and 2022, the government grew more aggressive towards religious groups, as part of a larger assault on independent civil society in Nicaragua. Thousands of domestic and international organisations, many of them religious, were stripped arbitrarily of their legal status. The government also moved to shut down religious media outlets: it closed the only Protestant Christian television channel, one of the most important Protestant radio stations, and two RC television channels. In August 2022, the government ordered the closure of eight RC radio stations. This led to direct action by the security forces against church leaders.

On 4 August 2022, in the city of Matagalpa, security forces blockaded the Bishop of Matagalpa, the Rt Revd Rolando Álvarez, together with a group of priests and lay leaders, inside the curia for 15 days, before the security forces eventually stormed it (News, 12 August 2022).

Bishop Álvarez was placed under house arrest, and seven men — including four priests, two young seminarians, and a cameraman — were incarcerated in El Chipote, a maximum-security prison. Four of the others who had been confined with the group inside the curia were released. On 4 October, those still detained were charged with “organising violent groups” and with encouraging them “to carry out acts of hate against the population”. In January this year, they were put on trial.

In an unexpected turn of events, on 9 February, the Nicaraguan government announced that, in an agreement with the United States government, 222 political prisoners had been put on flights to the US. Those who were forcibly exiled included the seven men detained in Matagalpa on 19 August, two additional unjustly imprisoned RC priests, and a Protestant pastor who had been imprisoned in late 2020 for calling for “a Christmas without political prisoners” and had been held in solitary confinement.

The Nicaraguan government then took the extraordinary step, illegal under international law, of stripping all of the exiles of their Nicaraguan citizenship: a measure that was subsequently extended to others. Bishop Álvarez was not on the flight to the US: he refused to be forced into exile, and, on 10 February, was sentenced to 26 years’ imprisonment at the conclusion of a summary trial (News, 14 February). He is now being held in a “punishment cell” in a maximum-security prison.

THE Ortega-Murillo government’s moves to eradicate independent civil-society groups and to stamp out independent voices, including those of religious leaders, show that it thinks that the biggest threat to its hold on power comes from within the country. In reaction to criticism from Europe and North America, and from democratically elected governments in the region, the Ortega-Murillo government is now cultivating relationships with China and Russia.

Members of the international community who support the restoration of pluralistic democracy and respect for human rights in Nicaragua must find creative and effective ways to support and strengthen what remains of independent civil society, including communities of faith, both in the country and in exile. The international community should seek means to reinforce the links between civil-society groups in Nicaragua and in exile, so that they can work together for positive change.

It is vital that the Ortega-Murillo government should not succeed in its attempts to neutralise the potential of its people by repression and intimidation — or by forcing them into exile and removing their rights as citizens.

Anna Lee Stangl is head of advocacy at Christian Solidarity Worldwide

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