Exile: Don’t underestimate Nicaragua church’s ‘prophetic voice’ amid repression

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa and Esteli, who has been critical of the Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, prayed at a Catholic church in Managua, Nicaragua, in May 2022. (OSV News Photo by Maynor Valenzuela, Reuters)

By Gina Christian

In the face of Nicaragua’s authoritarian regime, “the prophetic voice of the Catholic Church cannot be underestimated,” said an opposition leader recently exiled to the U.S., who joined fellow speakers at a Dec. 1 presentation on the church’s role in preserving democratic freedom.

The event’s panelists stressed the need to educate and advocate for religious liberty, free speech and other human rights in Nicaragua, which have been severely eroded by the administration of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo.

The ruling couple views the Catholic Church as “an enemy that competes” for their power, said Juan Sebastián Chamorro, an economist and former Nicaraguan presidential candidate who was imprisoned and ultimately banished from his homeland in February.

Chamorro spoke at “Democracy and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua,” an in-person and livestreamed Dec. 1 panel discussion presented by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in partnership with the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs and Pulte Institute for Global Development.

Along with Chamorro — now a visiting fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Kellogg Institute for International Studies — participants included Notre Dame president Holy Cross Father John Jenkins; Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio of the U.S. Archdiocese for the Military Services, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops; Christopher Hernandez-Roy, deputy director and senior fellow of CSIS’ Americas program; Maura Policelli, executive director of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs; the Rev. Frederick Davie, vice chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom; Thomas Hare, senior researcher and co-director of the Central America Research Alliance of Notre Dame’s Pulte Institute for Global Development; and Rosalía Miller, president of the U.S.-based nonprofit Nicaragua Freedom Coalition.

Davie said that he and his colleagues “remain deeply concerned” about Ortega and Murillo’s “brutal crackdown on religious freedom, particularly against the Catholic Church.”

Under the Ortega regime, clergy, religious and laypeople have been harassed, detained, imprisoned and expelled — most notably Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, stripped of his citizenship and now serving a 26-year sentence for refusing to be exiled to the U.S. Charges against the bishop, an outspoken critic of Ortega, included treason, undermining national integrity and spreading false news.

The pro-Ortega congress has closed more than 3,000 nongovernmental organizations and expelled priests and women religious, including the Missionaries of Charity. Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez of Managua has lived in exile since 2019 and in Miami ministers to a growing Nicaraguan diaspora. More than half a million Nicaraguans (about 10% of the population) have fled, with a new study indicating that about half of the 6.2 million population wish to do the same.

Chamorro was one of 222 jailed critics who were deported in February and had their citizenship rescinded. In August, Ortega’s government seized the Jesuit-run University of Central America, and in October, a dozen priests who had been held as political prisoners were expelled to the Vatican as part of an agreement reached between it and Ortega’s government.

In a video message for the presentation, Father Jenkins said that Ortega’s “attempt to extinguish Catholicism in Nicaragua merits global condemnation on a much larger and louder scale,” and that “his regime should be isolated as an international pariah for trying to disappear Catholic institutions, freedom of worship and freedom of expression.”

Archbishop Broglio — who as then-chair of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace traveled to Nicaragua in 2018, amid widespread protests against Ortega’s regime — said in his address that “despite all the pain that the church has experienced … the church is committed to dialogue and finding an avenue of reconciliation for the good of the people of Nicaragua.”

The Nicaraguan Catholic bishops had tried to warn Ortega in 2014 of the nation’s descent into authoritarianism, presenting the president — now in his fourth consecutive term — with a letter calling for a transparent electoral process to ensure national stability, Chamorro said.

Now, Ortega’s attacks on the church — which have even included “desecration of the Blessed Sacrament by politically motivated mobs,” said Archbishop Broglio — continue to “impact the exiled community psychologically, physically and emotionally,” said Miller.

“We worry about the people in Nicaragua, and about our relatives’ well-being,” she said. “We worry that our activism might harm them. But we don’t stop.”

She said that Bishop Báez, ministering in Miami, has become the Nicaraguan diaspora’s “soul” and “heart.”

“He gives us hope,” said Miller.

Hare shared a warning his colleagues — many of whom had worked at the University of Central America and still faced reprisals — asked him to convey, that “the threats to democracy are spreading in the whole region, and are especially strong where religion and freedom of expression intersect,” such as the pulpit or “from the podium at Catholic and other universities across the region.”

Chamorro agreed, noting that “this isn’t a matter of Nicaragua alone,” with both he and Hare pointing to El Salvador and Guatemala as examples.

Ortega himself is “exporting” an approach that “he imported from (Vladimir) Putin’s Russia,” implementing repressive tactics in Nicaragua that are “copycats of laws Putin made,” said Chamorro.

Equally important to an international response to Nicaragua are efforts by the global community “to prevent this contagion from continuing,” said Hare.

Archbishop Broglio, who highlighted Catholic social teaching on human freedom and dignity, cited a statement he had made in February after Chamorro and his fellow exiles arrived in the U.S.

“I said that even in this dark hour, courageous hope, charity and solidarity are bearing witness to the enduring vitality of the people of Nicaragua and among Catholics worldwide (who are) supporting the Nicaraguan faithful,” he said.

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