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Vatican brokers release into exile of Nicaraguan bishops and priests

16 January 2024

Alamy

The Rt Revd Rolando Alvarez at a press conference in Managua, in 2018

The Rt Revd Rolando Alvarez at a press conference in Managua, in 2018

TWO Roman Catholic bishops and 17 priests have been released from prison by the Nicaraguan government and sent into exile after negotiations with the Vatican.

All of the group, bar one, have arrived in Rome, where they will stay as guests of the Holy See, the Vatican has confirmed.

The Bishop of Matagalpa, the Rt Revd Rolando Álvarez, was sentenced to 26 years in prison in January last year, on charges of treason, undermining national integrity, and spreading false information (News, 17 February 2023). In addition to the prison sentence imposed last year, he was also stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship. The Bishop had been a fierce critic of President Ortega’s authoritarian regime, and had been under house arrest since August 2022. He had reportedly refused to be sent into exile days before being sentenced to imprisonment.

Religious groups have been under increasing threat in the country. Outdoor acts of worship are banned, missionary organisations are proscribed, and religious broadcasting stations have been closed down. The President has accused clergy of supporting the mass protests that called for his resignation in 2018 (News, 8 June 2018). Clergy provided shelter for protesters during the brutal crackdown that ensued.

The other bishop released and exiled was the Rt Revd Isidoro del Carmen Mora Ortega, who had been arrested in December after telling a congregation that he was united in prayer with the imprisoned clerics.

This is the second time that the Vatican has brokered a deal with the Nicaraguan authorities. In October, it accepted 12 Nicaraguan priests released from prison (News, 27 October 2023).

The Nicaraguan government confirmed the release in a statement on Sunday. It thanked Pope Francis and other members of the Roman Catholic Church for “the very respectful and discreet coordination carried out to make possible the trip to the Vatican” for the group.

“They have been received by Vatican authorities, in compliance with agreements of good faith and good will, which seek to promote understanding and improve communication between the Holy See and Nicaragua, for peace and good,” the statement confirmed.

Anna Lee Stangl, the head of advocacy for Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which supports persecuted Christians, said: “While CSW welcomes the news that these religious leaders are now free, this should not be interpreted as a gesture of good will on the part of the government. Bishop Álvarez Lagos, Bishop Mora Ortega, and the 17 others, have been forced to leave their country because the government compels those who are critical of the regime to choose between prison or exile.

“We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners in Nicaragua, for the restoration of citizenship for Bishop Álvarez Lagos and all others who have been stripped of their nationality, and for the international community to hold President Ortega to account for the campaign to eliminate independent voices in the country.”

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