Nicaragua is erupting as the latest major battleground over religious freedom due to the autocratic regime of President Daniel Ortega’s targeting of religious critics for special persecution—inciting mob violence, detaining opponents, and perpetrating legal abuses against human rights champions.
Ortega’s most recent target, Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, was recently sentenced to 26 years in prison for his robust defense of human dignity, religious freedom, and resistance to government abuses of power.
After exiling 222 political prisoners to the United States, the Appeals Court—under the direction of Ortega—has convicted Bishop Álvarez of treason, undermining national security, and spreading false news. Msgr. Álvarez refused exile to the United States without first speaking to his fellow bishops, after which he was immediately removed from house arrest and jailed in La Modelo prison. The date of the trial, originally scheduled for February 15, was moved up to February 10 to deny him a fair trial. That same day, Álvarez was convicted, sentenced to 26 years in prison, and stripped of his citizenship. Since then, the bishop has been kept in solitary confinement under poor conditions and possibly subjected to torture.
Bishop Álvarez is the Zelensky of Latin America: rather than fleeing, as he could have, he has chosen to remain in Nicaragua, to assert the rights of his congregants, and provide a witness of steadfast devotion in the face of suffering. The United States should immediately call for the release and protection of Bishop Álvarez for as long as he chooses to remain in Nicaragua.
Ortega, a former Marxist guerilla, was previously president from 1979-1990 after the Sandinista revolution and was elected again in 2007. In 2014, the Sandinista-dominated government abolished constitutional provisions regarding presidential term limits. Since Ortega’s violent crackdown on student protests in 2018 and jailing of opposition politicians in advance of the 2021 election, Catholic clergy have criticized the regime’s violent oppression and its escalating violations of political rights. Priests and bishops have sheltered protestors in a basilica, condemned violence against opponents of the regime, and advocated for democratic reforms grounded in the convictions of their Catholic faith and Church teaching. Those who have courageously spoken out, like Álvarez, have faced persecution at the hands of the government, beginning with surveillance and recording of homilies for potentially subversive messages, intimidation by police forces, and culminating in arbitrary detention and revocation of citizenship.
These offenses against human dignity violate the long-held first principles embodied in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and also in our Bill of Rights. The Biden administration, which often invokes moral language in its foreign policy, should reiterate its commitment to core American values and promote the protection of unalienable rights abroad by advocating for the release of Bishop and his fellow prisoners of conscience.
As Bishop, Álvarez established a human rights office to assist victims of government violence and denounced the Ortega regime’s abuses and violations of political and religious freedoms in his homilies during Masses. Álvarez was kidnapped last August and detained under house arrest until his refusal to accept exile. Eight of the 222 deportees exiled to the United States were Catholic priests. Since Álvarez’s imprisonment, another 94 of Ortega’s political opponents have had their citizenship revoked and property confiscated, leaving them without rights, access to bank accounts or credit. This was immediately followed by the deportation of Italian priest Fr. Cosimo Damiano Muratori on February 17 for praising Álvarez’s courage in a homily.
The Ortega government’s scheme of oppression will not stop with Álvarez and Muratori. The Nicaraguan government’s crackdown has sought to eliminate civil society organizations, both religious and secular. In May 2022, the government shut down 50 non-profit organizations. In recent weeks, the regime eliminated another 23 non-profit organizations, several of them religious, ostensibly for breach of laws requiring financial disclosures.
Ortega has singled out Catholic clergy and institutions for particular animosity, though Catholics are estimated to constitute only between 40-50% of the population. In addition to its imprisonment of Bishop Álvarez, the regime has also expelled the papal nuncio, the equivalent of the Vatican’s ambassador to Nicaragua. Notably, the Missionaries of Charity—the order of nuns founded by Mother Teresa—was also forced to leave the country after their legal status was revoked. The crackdown on Catholic figures and entities also included the closure of several Catholic radio stations. Another prelate, Msgr. Silvio Báez, Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, has lived in exile since 2019 at the request of Pope Francis due to credible intelligence of death threats against the Bishop.
Combined with the escalation in imprisonment, exile, and revocation of citizenship in the past weeks, it is clear that the Ortega regime will continue to threaten religious actors and religious freedom in Nicaragua.
The United States must remain resolute in condemning all human rights violations perpetrated by the Ortega regime, especially those directed at religious institutions and actors such as Bishop Álvarez. Freedom of religion necessitates the right to act in the public square in accordance with one’s religious beliefs free of the fear of legal retribution. Such religious expressions include bringing one’s beliefs and principles into political and social engagement.
The State Department has correctly criticized the Ortega regime’s oppression of political opponents and human rights activists. The United States should just as forcibly condemn the Nicaraguan government’s persecution of religiously motivated actors and demand the immediate release and protection of Bishop Rolando Álvarez. Furthermore, the 38 nations that are members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance should issue condemning statements against the Ortega regime and issue economic sanctions against the regime until Bishop Álvarez is released.
Other Latin American dictators are watching to see if those nations claiming religious freedom will stand up for this right or simply look the other way.
( Erica Lizza is a Master in Human Rights candidate at the Catholic University of America. Sam Brownback is the former U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom and co-chair of the IRF Summit.)