Nicaraguan authorities announced on January 14th that they have released prominent Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez and 18 jailed priests, exiling them to Italy after reaching an agreement with the Vatican. The surprise move comes amid a broader crackdown on the Catholic Church and dissenting voices by the authoritarian government of President Daniel Ortega.
Background of the Crisis
Tensions between the Catholic Church and the Ortega regime have been escalating since 2018 when massive anti-government protests erupted against a violent repression of demonstrations. Ortega accused the Church of attempting to overthrow him by supporting the protestors, who were attacked by police and pro-government militias.
Several prominent clergy members have been jailed or placed under house arrest since then, including Bishop Álvarez who was detained in August 2022 after a two week standoff at his residence in Matagalpa. He and the priests faced charges of “conspiracy” and “damaging the Nicaraguan government and society.” Their supporters decried the prosecutions as politically motivated and lacking due process.
The situation further declined after the abduction of Bishop Rolando Álvarez in August 2022. The UN called on Nicaragua to reveal his whereabouts, warning he could face torture. By September over 50 Catholic priests and seminarians had been arrested.
Agreement with the Vatican
According to statements from both sides, an agreement was made between the Vatican and Nicaragua to release Álvarez and the other clergymen from prison. They would then be exiled on a charter flight to Italy on January 14th along with relatives.
In return, the Vatican is said to have agreed to lift the suspension of Managua Auxiliary Bishop Sócrates René Sándigo Avilés. He had been accused by other prelates of being too subservient to Ortega.
“The government never intended to have held Monsignor Álvarez for long, their goal was to exile him and the latest deal with the Vatican sealed that objective,” said political analyst José Luis Rocha to the New York Times.
Release and Exile of Bishop Álvarez
On the morning of January 14th, a charter flight carrying Bishop Álvarez, 18 priests and several relatives took off from Managua bound for Rome. Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni confirmed their arrival that evening.
Álvarez had been held in isolation and denied due process since last August. Footage showed the clergymen being escorted solemnly onto the plane in silence. They carried only small bags, having been forced to leave most belongings behind.
“It pains me to leave, but I must go to ensure the wellbeing of others,” said an emotional Álvarez to reporters before departure.
The surprise release and exile of the Catholic clergy spurred reactions from religious groups and foreign governments:
The Vatican expressed “relief” at the outcome after long negotiations. Pope Francis spoke personally by phone with Álvarez upon arrival in Rome.
US Ambassador to the Vatican Samuel Brownback said the US would work to provide the exiled priests with necessities.
Senator Marco Rubio said the government had “made a mistake in believing this decision will restore their standing.”
Mexican President Lopez Obrador urged all parties to continue dialogue and “choose reconciliation.”
Cubans bishops warned the exile created a “dangerous precedent” for dealing with dissent.
What Comes Next?
Analysts say releasing Álvarez removes a high profile critic and ralling figure for the broader anti-Ortega movement ahead of general elections next year. However it remains unclear what comes next for the hundreds of political prisoners still jailed in Nicaragua’s notorious prisons:
|Over 220 still detained
|At least 8 independent reporters jailed
|Fewer than a dozen priests now imprisoned
With upcoming elections in which Ortega is expected to run despite term limits, observers fear more repression is in store for government opponents even after Álvarez’s exile.
“Make no mistake – Ortega’s goal is total control,” said opposition leader Felix Maradiaga. “He will not tolerate dissent from any corner as he prepares to further steal power.”
The exiled bishop has not yet made any official statements. But those close to the obstinate Álvarez expect him to continue criticizing Ortega’s regime from abroad, galvanizing international pressure.
“You can take the bishop out of Nicaragua but you can’t take Nicaragua out of the bishop,” remarked one priest close to Álvarez. It appears likely this dramatic saga has not seen its final chapter.
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