Catholic clergy in Nicaragua have repeatedly denounced the government’s violent suppression of protests that began in 2018 and called for democratic reforms in the aftermath of fraudulent general elections in 2021.
In response, five-term President Daniel Ortega’s government has become increasingly hostile to the Catholic Church, detaining and prosecuting members of the clergy, while forcing other priests and Catholic organizations into exile.
The regime has intensified its banning of Lenten religious processions, namely the Stations of the Cross. Why ban a Lenten Catholic devotion, especially one so traditionally popular in Latin America?
Because in Nicaragua, the Catholic Church presents the only alternative source of authority to the Ortega regime. Nicaragua’s Catholic population accounts for about half of the 80 percent of Nicaraguans who are Christians. The Church also constitutes a significant portion of Nicaraguan civil society with its associated social service institutions, such as schools, nursing homes, and poverty relief programs.
The regime has imprisoned, deported, and revoked the citizenship of political opponents and journalists. The Catholic Church is the largest non-governmental institution left standing in Nicaragua. As President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, have attempted to consolidate control, religious voices, primarily members of the Catholic clergy, have provided a consistent challenge to the Ortega regime’s violent oppression and violation of human rights.
The shift from targeting institutional Catholic Church actors to the practices of the Catholic faith itself presents a stark reminder of the animosity religions often face from autocratic regimes. In shutting down Catholic charities and schools and now forbidding public religious processions, the regime seeks to eliminate the Church’s presence in public life, but the repression is unlikely to stop there.
Ortega and Murillo correctly realize that while government programs, school systems, and even media can be subsumed into his personalist regime, an alternate source of moral authority blocks their hold on power from becoming all-consuming. It is this moral authority they will try to erode by further restrictions on the Catholic Church, which could in the future include the closure of individual churches.
To understand the strategy behind the Ortega regime’s antagonism toward the Catholic Church, it is helpful to examine the patterns of hostile government action toward religious entities. Emilie Kao, who worked for the U.S. Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom, has articulated a four-step process which demonstrates how religious individuals and ethno-religious groups are typically targeted and attacked by hostile state actors. Those four steps are:
1) social marginalization;
2) economic discrimination;
3) legal discrimination; and
In statements clearly intended to delegitimize the Catholic Church, Ortega and Murillo have reviled and demonized Catholic priests as “devils in cassocks” and “terrorists.” Ortega has also accused Bishop Rolando Álvarez of “crimes against spirituality.”
Such social marginalization, which encourages disaffiliation from and hostility toward the target, has resulted in the Catholic Church in Nicaragua being subjected to 190 separate attacks since 2018. These attacks range from police harassment of clergy to desecration of churches. Ortega and Murillo’s repeated antagonistic rhetoric has directly facilitated this violence.
Once defined as social undesirables, it is easy for governments and others to economically discriminate against such targets. By denying operating permits and expelling Catholic organizations, like the Missionaries of Charity and other non-profit organizations who provide vital services to the poor, the Ortega government has economically discriminated against Catholic organizations. In addition to disadvantaging Catholic institutions and removing them from public life, this discrimination also injures Nicaraguans who rely on these organizations for provision of social services, such as the nursery home, orphanage, and home for the elderly operated by the Missionaries of Charity.
Economic discrimination can easily lead to legal discrimination, such as existing laws being selectively enforced against certain actors or laws being created specifically to target the socially marginalized entities. In Nicaragua, several high-profile cases of legal discrimination against Catholic persons and entities have occurred in the past months. The abduction, sham trial, and imprisonment of Bishop Álvarez and the unlawful detention of several priests and seminarians demonstrate the extent to which legal discrimination against Catholic clergy and institutions has been normalized.
A few days before Álvarez’s conviction, four priests and two seminarians from his diocese were each sentenced to ten years in prison for charges of treason and spreading false news. As of March 10, the Ortega government ordered the revocation of legal status and seizure of assets of two Catholic universities, ostensibly for noncompliance with financial disclosure regulations. The universities have also been ordered to relinquish their database information on students and faculty to the government’s National Council of Universities.
The plight of Archbishop Álvarez clearly indicates that the Nicaraguan government’s animosity toward the Catholic Church has reached dangerous levels, inching toward widespread violence. And in fact, violence remains an implicit threat to Catholic clergy after a noteworthy incident involving another bishop. Bishop Silvio Báez, another outspoken critic of the Ortega regime, has lived in exile since 2019, at the request of Pope Francis, who believed Baez’s assassination was imminent due to repeated death threats.
On March 12, the Nicaraguan government closed the Vatican embassy in Nicaragua and proposed suspending diplomatic relations after Pope Francis characterized President Daniel Ortega as a dictator during an interview about the case of Bishop Álvarez.
Given these events, further escalation of overt violence against Catholic clergy in Nicaragua remains a definite possibility, especially if the Ortega government feels increasingly threatened by the economic crisis and large numbers of Nicaraguans continue fleeing the country to seek asylum in Costa Rica and elsewhere.
Ortega has pioneered the frequent use of forced exile and revocation of citizenship to defang critics. He will likely continue to apply this deterrent to Catholic entities, and doing so risks inspiring other autocrats within the region to use this approach to punish civil society members who critique government corruption and abuses.
Serving as a witness to human dignity and denouncing the cruel injustices of the Ortega regime will continue to invite wrath upon the Catholic Church, but this is not a novel experience for Catholics living under dictatorship. In their courageous resistance, Bishop Álvarez and his fellow Nicaraguan Catholics invite observers of the crisis to live according to the truth, no matter the cost.
Erica Lizza is research assistant at the Religious Freedom Institute and an M.A. 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.