Nicaraguan police arrest bishop and other priests in raid: NPR
MEXICO CITY — Nicaraguan police on Friday raided the residence of a Roman Catholic bishop who is critical of President Daniel Ortega’s government, arresting him and several other priests in a dramatic escalation of tensions between the church and a government that is growing is intolerant of dissenting opinions.
The pre-dawn raid came after Nicaraguan authorities accused the Bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, of “organizing violent groups” and inciting them to “acts of hatred against the population”.
President Daniel Ortega’s administration has systematically cracked down on dissent, arresting dozens of opposition leaders over the past year, including seven potential candidates who could challenge him for the presidency. They were sentenced to prison terms in summary proceedings in camera this year.
The Congress, dominated by Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, has ordered the closure of more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations, including Mother Teresa’s charity.
Early Friday, the Diocese of Matagalpa posted on social media: “#SOS #Urgente. At that point, the National Police entered the Episcopal Rectory of our Diocese of Matagalpa.”
The National Police later confirmed the arrests in a statement, saying the operation was carried out to “allow the citizenry and families of Matagalpa to return to normal”.
“For several days, with much patience, prudence and a sense of responsibility, a positive communication from the Diocese of Matagalpa was awaited, which never came about,” the statement said. “With the continuation of the destabilizing and provocative activities, the above-mentioned public order operation became necessary.”
Specific charges were not named.
Álvarez was being held under guard at a home in Managua where he had been allowed to meet with relatives and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the police statement said.
The others taken with Álvarez — they didn’t say who or how many — were still being processed, police said.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the arrests and called for the immediate release of the detainees.
Edwin Román, a Nicaraguan minister exiled to the United States, said via Twitter: “MY GOD!
The streets around the cathedral in Matagalpa were relatively empty on Friday. A few parishioners were praying inside, where a picture of Álvarez was pinned to the robe of a Jesus Christ figure.
María Lacayo said she was “very sad because we know that our bishop is innocent and an excellent man”.
“We all love him very much because he is there for all of us and it is a tremendous injustice what is being done to him. But as Catholics, we put everything in God’s hands,” she added.
Álvarez has been a key religious voice in discussions about Nicaragua’s future since 2018, when a wave of protests against Ortega’s government led to a full-scale crackdown on opponents.
“We hope for a series of electoral reforms, structural changes in the electoral authority – free, fair and transparent elections, international monitoring without conditions,” Álvarez said a month after the protests erupted. “Really the democratization of the country.”
At that time, a priest in the diocese of Álvarez was wounded in the arm by shrapnel while trying to separate protesters and the police in Matagalpa.
Álvarez has sustained such calls for democracy for the past four years, infuriating Ortega and Murillo.
Manuel Orozco, an expert on Nicaragua at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said Álvarez is a threat, an obstacle and a symbol for Ortega.
“Nicaraguans are very loyal to the Church,” he said. “In a poll I conducted last year, 70% of Nicaraguans said they valued the political opinion of religious authority at the national or church level in shaping their political views.”
“(Álvarez’s) narrative is based on the religious script, the biblical script about resisting the oppressor,” Orozco said. “And he makes insinuations not to incite violence or call for resistance, but he says there is oppression.”
Orozco said the government is counting on its pressure on the church not eliciting an “appropriate response” from the international community. “And so they keep pushing the limits because they don’t see a military invasion any time soon, there’s not going to be anything that can stop them.”
Friday’s arrests follow weeks of tension between the church and Ortega’s government, which has had a complicated relationship with Nicaragua’s dominant religion and its leaders for more than four decades.
The former Marxist guerrilla infuriated the Vatican in the 1980s but gradually forged an alliance with the Church when he regained the presidency in 2007 after a long period without power. Now he seems to see political benefits in direct confrontation again.
Ortega initially invited the church to mediate in conversations with protesters in 2018, but has since taken a more aggressive stance.
Days ahead of last year’s presidential election, which he won for the fourth consecutive year while his main opponents were jailed, he accused the bishops of drafting a 2018 policy proposal on behalf of “the terrorists serving the Yankees.” … These bishops are also terrorists.”
In March, Nicaragua expelled the papal nuncio, the Vatican’s top diplomat in Nicaragua.
The government previously shut down eight radio stations and one TV channel in Matagalpa province, north of Managua. Seven of the radio stations were operated by the Church.
The Aug. 5 announcement that Álvarez was under investigation came just hours after First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo criticized “sins against spirituality” and “displaying hatred” in an apparent reference to Álvarez.
The Archdiocese of Managua had earlier expressed its support for Álvarez. The Conference of Latin American Catholic Bishops condemned what it called a “siege” of priests and bishops, the expulsion of members of religious communities and “continuous harassment” against the Nicaraguan people and the Church.
The Vatican remained silent on the investigation into Álvarez for nearly two weeks, drawing criticism from some Latin American human rights activists and intellectuals.
That silence was broken last Friday when Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz, the Vatican’s permanent observer at the Organization of American States, expressed his concern about the situation and urged both parties to “seek ways of understanding.”
The Vatican again made no comment on Friday and did not immediately report the news on its internal media portal. Although the Vatican appears to be staying silent, apparently hoping not to stir up tensions, it has regularly published statements of solidarity from Latin American bishops on its Vatican News website in recent days.
The president of the Bishops’ Conference of Nicaragua did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Major street protests across Nicaragua in 2018 prompted Ortega to resign. Ortega claimed the protests were an attempted coup carried out with foreign backing and the backing of the Church.