Between April, 2018 and the beginning of January, 2024, the Daniel Ortega-Rosario Murillo dictatorship has subjected 203 clergy and seminarians to forced exile, imprisonment, expulsion or refusal of entry to Nicaragua. More than 80% of these aggressions were registered in 2023, when Ortega stepped up his offensive against the Catholic Church.
"2023 was the most vicious year. Not because I say so, but because the numbers confirm it: 307 aggressions in 2023, in addition to 3,600 prohibited processions and 237 prohibited masses in cemeteries. Kidnappings, harassment, permanent surveillance," says Martha Patricia Molina, researcher and author of the study, Nicaragua, a persecuted church?
On February 9, 2023, the Ortega regime included eight clergy in the group of 222 prisoners of conscience released and forcibly exiled to the United States. They were joined by 12 priests who had been arrested and subsequently exiled to the Vatican, for a total of 20. Another 43 –including priests, seminarians and deacons– were forced into exile due to persecution and harassment in their parishes. The most recent priest to leave the country to protect his freedom was Fernando Tellez, from the Archdiocese of Managua, according to an update on the attacks against the Church prepared by Molina.
Some 31 clergy, most of them Nicaraguan citizens, were prevented from re-entering the country after religious or personal trips. The Immigration Directorate, now a branch of the newly resuscitated Ministry of the Interior, has not provided justification of the re-entry prohibition in any of the cases.
Before the end of 2023, Ortega unleashed a roundup of priests, turning 17 clergy and seminarians into political prisoners and forced disappearances. They, together with Monsignor Rolando Alvarez –who was sentenced to 26 years and 4 months in prison–, remain isolated and incommunicado from their families. There are no formal charges or legal proceedings to justify the illegal detentions.
The regime captured Nicaraguan bishop Isidoro Mora on December 20, 2023. His whereabouts are still unknown. The rest of the clergy and seminarians, several of whom are chronically ill and require daily medication, are in the same situation. Despite demands for information and their release by opposition groups and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for Central America, the dictatorship continues to hold them in conditions of "forced disappearance."
Criminal lawyers have suggested to relatives of the two bishops, thirteen priests and three seminarians who have been arrested, to file writs of habeas corpus to force the judicial system to make public information about their location. However, in practice these prisoners are subject to the discretion of the Ortega regime, which continues to violate multiple constitutional rights.
Risk of more clergy being forced into exile in 2024
"If the dictatorship continues at the same pace of aggression, 2024 could be worse than 2023," warns Molina. According to the researcher's systematization, in the first six days of 2024, "more than ten aggressions against the Catholic Church have been documented; as of this date in 2023, only seven were reported," she said.
Molina does not rule out the possibility of more clergy being forced into exile. "Whenever they imprison priests, it is to expel them," she said. Molina bases her assertion on the experience of October 2023, when Ortega unleashed a previous roundup of priests, imprisoning six in two weeks, mostly from the Diocese of Estelí. The regime hid them for a few days in the El Chipote jail or blockaded them inside their seminary, and then banished them to the Vatican.
The most recent forced exile of 12 clerics was the result of "fruitful conversations with the Holy See," according to the Ortega regime, which in 2023 suspended diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
Since the dictatorship began arresting priests, the only one it has shown photographs of is Bishop Alvarez. The most recent time was on January 2. The regime's media outlets posted photos of the prelate at a supposed medical appointment. The bishop looks extremely thin and pale as a result of being held in a maximum security cell, quite different from the conditions the dictatorship has tried to present on the three occasions it has circulated photos of him in the Jorge Navarro Prison, known as "La Modelo."
Although the dictatorship's attacks have been against the entire Catholic Church, Ortega has particularly raged against the Archdiocese of Managua –with 242 aggressions– and the diocese of Matagalpa –with 144 aggressions– between 2018 and August 2023. The regime is targeting spaces led by bishops critical of the dictatorship, such as Bishop Alvarez, who is also apostolic administrator of the diocese of Esteli, and the auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Baez, forced into exile in 2019 by order of Pope Francis.
Aggressions against nuns
Some 85 nuns were expelled and banished from Nicaragua following the dictatorship's closure of their congregations and the confiscation of their properties. Of those, seven were forced into exile when they were prevented from re-entering the country. The Missionaries of Charity of St. Teresa of Calcutta, the Daughters of St. Louise de Marillac in the Holy Spirit, the nuns of the Jesus Christ Fraternity of the Poor, and the Dominican Sisters of the Annunciation are some of the best known cases the regime has forced to abandon their mission in Nicaragua.
Rosario Murillo responds with hate speech
The roundup of Nicaraguan priests has caused "concern" in Pope Francis who, after praying the first Angelus of 2024, called for "the path of dialogue" to always be sought to overcome problems.
However, the response of the Ortega regime has been to raise the discourse of hatred against the Church. In her first speech of this year, the vice-president and spokesperson of the regime, Rosario Murillo, said it is not possible to believe in "figures that exude evil."
"How can we believe in figures whose loud voices speak of greed, of envy, of selfishness, of evil? How can we believe that they can be representatives of God on Earth?...The expressions of some of those we see with familiar faces are faces of destruction, of demolition, and above all, of farce, of deceit, of fraud," Murillo said on January 2.
On January 3, Murillo again lashed out against priests without naming them directly. "How are those who have preached evil and have blessed murders and hate crimes going to give lessons in morality?," questioned the vice-president and government spokeswoman.
Since the social uprising of 2018, the Ortega regime has accused the bishops of terrorism for opening their churches to protect Nicaraguans from the brutal attacks of the police and paramilitaries and for denouncing human rights violations committed against civil society.
On January 4, Murillo used a poem of her own authorship to assert that there is no religious persecution in Nicaragua while admitting that clergy had been arrested. "False that there is religious persecution. If they arrest a priest, there must be a reason. That is not religious persecution," she read.