Father “Ricardo” [assumed name] is one of at least 24 priests that the Ortega regime has, in effect, banished. At the end of 2022, Nicaraguan immigration authorities refused to allow him to return to the country, after a trip away. Although Father Ricardo is now outside of Nicaragua, he fears that his declarations could “harm” his family or friends, because the dictatorship “has by now lost all shame.”
The priest agreed to an anonymous interview for the television news program Esta Semana, transmitted over social media due to the on-going television censorship in Nicaragua. During the conversation, the priest denounced the surge in repression against the Catholic Church, the banishment of priests, and the criminalization of religious processions and activities of popular faith. At the same time, he questioned the silence of Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference.
“We feel let down. Anything could happen to any priest, and the Conference, the bishops, issue no pronouncement. We feel like sheep without a shepherd,” he lamented.
On the other hand, the banished Father highlighted the witness that Matagalpa’s bishop, Rolando Alvarez, is offering from prison. “It’s admirable. He won’t abandon his flock. Those who know him also know he’s a man of principles and of conviction,” he assured.
Father Ricardo also took advantage of the interview to send words of encouragement to the priests who are living in the police state that Nicaragua has become. “The sheep have to feel the accompaniment of their shepherd. Let’s not abandon them. They must feel that their priest is truly suffering along with them,” he insisted.
What made you decide to agree to this anonymous interview?
The very situation that the Nicaraguan people are living through. We’re living under a cynical dictatorship that has already lost all shame. Take a look at the current situation. Not even the Sandinistas themselves are secure. If they can’t get you, they take it out on your family and harm you in that way. There’s absolutely no respect for anything or anyone.
You suffered a de facto banishment, when the dictatorship refused to allow you back into your country. Did they explain their reasons?
They didn’t offer any explanation. The airline is the one that tells you you can’t go, because the government has denied you entry. That’s all. These are the characteristics of the dictatorship.
Do you know any other priests like yourself, who were denied reentry into the country?
Yes, several of us priests have been denied entry into our own homeland. There are also those who’ve had to leave because of the terrible harassment they experience in Nicaragua. Still others are imprisoned. You already know about those they put on an airplane [to the US] in February, and the latest 12 priests they sent to Rome. It’s a situation we’re living through, due to the paranoia this woman [Rosario Murillo] has, that suddenly comes up with some new notion. She doesn’t care about the damage she causes; she doesn’t care about the uncertainty this fills people with. She just acts, and it’s done.
What’s your opinion of the measures taken against your fellow priests who were banished to Rome?
The [Ortega regime] is violating all their rights. In the first place, [Murillo] is a liar, because she stated that this was the fruit of dialogue, and there was no such dialogue. Not with the Church hierarchy in Nicaragua, not with the Vatican. I imagine that due to international pressure, [the regime] found itself forced, pressured, into acting. To put on a good face and appear kindly disposed, they then took these twelve priests out of jail, put them on an airplane, and sent them to Rome.
From the statement that Rome put out, we can deduce that they notified the Vatican that the priests were headed there and to have the Pope receive them. It was logical that he’d receive them, because he is our father in the faith.
Bishop Rolando Alvarez remains in prison for refusing to be banished. What does Monsignor Alvarez’ witness symbolize within the Church?
No one knows if in truth he refuses. We haven’t heard him say that himself. The only thing we saw of Monsignor Rolando was when they staged that show and his siblings came to eat (last March), and they did an interview.
Let’s suppose that it’s true he won’t agree to leave Nicaragua. It’s admirable, because that indicates that Monsignor Rolando is a true man, bishop and pastor. He won’t leave the flock. He’s a man who’s guided by principles, a man of conviction. As Christ said to the soldier who slapped his face: “If I said something wrong, testify as to what was wrong. But if I spoke correctly, why did you strike Me?” If I’m Nicaraguan, why are you going to take away my nationality, my identity?
Those of us who know Rolando, know he’s been a man of principles: he always stood up to the dictatorship, always denounced them with firmness, while demonstrating the truth of his word. I went to the [Church] office when they closed the Matagalpa radio and television stations and they began to attack him. He always faced them with the truth because the truth will set you free, says the word of God.
The regime has accused the Church of money laundering, but five months after they issued these charges, they’ve failed to present any proof. What’s your response to this accusation?
Those accusations don’t have a shred of truth or basis. They want to justify why they closed our accounts. [The accusation was] simply their desire to continue discrediting us. But they know that in Nicaragua no one believes absolutely anything they say. That’s why they became a dictatorship. Since no one believes in their words, they have to use force, domination based on fear. It’s what they’re doing, implementing fear, terror. There’s an internal fear just under the surface in Nicaragua, fear the dictatorship has imposed.
The regime has forbidden faith activities and religious celebrations in the street. Why do they criminalize the popular faith?
The authority of the Church is founded upon the person of Christ. They can suppress processions or anything they want. But the people are firm in their faith. And when the people of Catholic faith can gather, they do gather – they go to the Church and you see the multitudes there. Hence, they [the Sandinistas] want to intimidate them, because the Church has always been the voice of those who have no voice. They want to strike fear into the few priests that are still left.
I, myself, was harassed, and intensely so. They visited me. I was already expecting that they wouldn’t let me back in, or that they’d put me in jail, because I’d been threatened by the Police. They sent me messages that if I wouldn’t be quiet, they were going to change me? How were they going to change me? From the Church to jail.
What impact is the imprisonment, the banishment of priests, and all the religious persecution having on the Church and its pastoral work?
I’d say that the Church is experiencing a moment of purification. It’s a moment in which we have to truly demonstrate what we are, and to what point we’re truly capable of following Christ. For example, the witness of Monsignor Rolando is admirable. It fulfils the words of Jesus Christ: “I am the good shepherd; I defend my flock; I won’t turn my back on my sheep. I’ll give my life for my sheep.” Monsignor is risking his life for the people of Nicaragua. The presence of Monsignor Rolando in Nicaragua is a little stone in the shoes of Chayo [popular designation for Rosario Murillo] and Daniel [Ortega].
What impact does this have among the faithful? What’s the feeling of the population in the country’s interior and in the different parishes?
People are always in contact with us, but with a lot of caution, because the persecution is terrible. They’ve wanted to eradicate the communion that the people have with the Church. That’s why they’ve been promoting the Evangelical churches. They take advantage of situations instead of uniting with the people’s pain, and people are discerning the truth – that the Church is with the people.
Despite the persecution and this latest escalation of the repression, the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference remains silent. What do you attribute that to?
That silence of our bishops, of the Episcopal Council, has left many of us feeling let down. It breaks my heart. I don’t know if its because they’re being threatened, if it’s because they’ve been bought off… I don’t know. I don’t know if they’re just trying to save their own hides. But the people feel abandoned by the bishops, by the Episcopal Council. History will take on the job of judging them.
During the eighties, the Episcopal Conference remained firm. Whatever the dictatorship did, [for instance] when they expelled Monsignor (Pablo) Vega with other priests – I don’t remember whether they escorted them to Honduras or Costa Rica – the next day there was the Episcopal Conference delivering their statement. And they were also threatened [at that time], with attempts to smear them, but the Conference remained firm.
If [they think] that their silence will detain the persecution, it hasn’t slowed. Hence, one asks: Is it a prudential silence? No. At the end of the day, in my mind, they’ve ended up being nearly accomplices – begging pardon and with all the due respect that some bishops have deserved. Many priests think this way. Anything could happen to any priest and the Conference, the Bishop, makes no pronouncement. We feel like sheep without a shepherd.
What happens to the priests like yourself, after being banished from their own country? What difficulties do they face?
Since the Church, thank God, is one body, they’ve taken us in, sheltered us and supported us. There’re some ups-and-down as always – the adaptation, the psychological impact. Banishment is horrible, especially for us Nicas who are always very tied to our customs. The Griteria is coming [Nicaraguan festival honoring the Virgen Mary]. That hits us hard, as does Holy Week at Easter; our way of being, our idiosyncrasies. The way we manifest our faith. It’s hard. But on we go, forward with the grace of God. And we have the support of the Nicaraguans who are also in exile.
What would you say to the priests who remain in Nicaragua, and to their congregations?
That they be faithful to the Lord.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by Havana Times. To get the most relevant news from our English coverage delivered straight to your inbox, subscribe to The Dispatch.