I would like to make an appeal to all people of good will to stand in support of the oppressed people of Nicaragua, the land of my birth, where the Catholic Church is being persecuted.
It is my hope that the Pope and Catholic leaders will denounce the dictator Daniel Ortega and his accomplice and wife Rosario Murillo for their merciless and relentless persecution of the Catholic Church. I have watched with great concern the escalation of the regime’s unholy war against the church, bishops, priests, seminarians, members of religious orders and the faithful.
I believe that it is important to stand in support of Bishop Rolando José Álvarez of Matagalpa, an outspoken critic of the regime’s human rights abuses and a man of the people who is universally admired and now the victim of Ortega and Murillo. I was deeply alarmed and distraught when I learned that at 3.30am on Friday August 19 heavily armed police broke down the doors of the clergy house to kidnap Bishop Álvarez along with his companions. They included four priests: Ramiro Reynaldo Tijerino Chávez, rector of the John Paul II University; José Luis Díaz Cruz and Sadiel Antonio Eugarrios Cano, first and second vicar of the Matagalpa Cathedral of St Peter; and Raúl Antonio Vega González.
Two seminarians, Darvin Esteylin Leiva Mendoza and Melkin Antonio Centeno Sequeira, were also arrested along with a photographer, Sergio José Cárdenas Flores. Their kidnapping was an escalation of the regime’s witch-hunt against Bishop Álvarez which began on August 4 when they were held hostage in the clergy house. The Ortega-Murillo regime prevented Bishop Álvarez from celebrating Mass in the cathedral. Security forces also prohibited members of the group from leaving the house while simultaneously preventing anyone from entering the premises to bring food, drinks and vital medicines. Police encircled and blockaded the house until they forced their way in, taking most of the group to a notorious prison and Bishop Álvarez to an undisclosed location.
For more than two months, Monsignor Álvarez has been held captive and incommunicado while the priests, seminarians and photographer continue to languish in prison. It has now emerged that the four priests are accused of the spurious and extremely serious charge of conspiring to “organise violent groups with the purpose of destabilising the state of Nicaragua and attacking the constitutional authorities”. They are facing trial and it is highly unlikely that they will receive justice.
The police first arrived at the clergy house on August 1 with the intention of confiscating broadcasting equipment owned by radio stations belonging to the Diocese of Matagalpa and the parish of the municipality of Sébaco. The regime’s telecommunications agency falsely claims that the radio stations did not meet the technical requirements to be on-air, but did not specify what those requirements were. As a result of the confiscation and closing of the radio and TV stations, Bishop Álvarez, being the radio coordinator, was forced to announce the closure of the church radio stations and TV networks. The regime has especially targeted Bishop Álvarez because he has a powerful and prophetic voice and has been courageous in denouncing Ortega’s systematic and grave human rights violations. This is a regime which will not tolerate any political opposition or dissenting voices, however moderate and mild those voices may be.
On that same day, a few kilometres away from Matagalpa, the police arrived to confiscate radio equipment owned by the parish. Worshippers prevented the officers from seizing the radio equipment, and many ordinary Catholics were beaten, injured and held near the church and the priest’s house. The priest, Fr Uriel Vallejo, was kept locked in the presbytery in the municipality of Sébaco, where he had been detained and surrounded by a substantial number of police officers. The cry for help of Fr Vallejo remains imprinted in my mind.
“Do not leave me alone,” he pleaded from his Twitter account.
Two fundamental pillars of Nicaraguan democracy – the Catholic Church and the independent media – have been practically trampled by the Ortega-Murillo regime. Ortega accused them of being accomplices of an alleged coup d’état in 2018, a spurious claim which has never been proven. To silence and frighten the citizens, Ortega and Murillo launched an unprecedented crackdown on the freedom of the press by closing and confiscating some of the most important independent media in Nicaragua such as El Diario LA PRENSA, Confidencial, Canal 💯por Ciento Noticias and Radio Darío.
In 2018 journalist Ángel Gahona was shot dead while live-streaming a protest against Ortega. Eleven workers and media managers have been imprisoned in the last four years (eight of which remain incarcerated). More than 140 journalists have been forced into exile and a national television channel, Canal 12, was embargoed and forced to withdraw from its usual programming.
Ortega and Murillo’s war against civil society has led him to arbitrarily cancel the legal status of more than 2,250 NGOs in a sweeping purge of civil society, human rights and humanitarian organisations, including several religious organisations that provided support to the most impoverished sections of the population.
More than 200 political prisoners remain incarcerated, and are victims of torture, and, as of July 6, a total of 18 Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by St Teresa of Calcutta, were expelled simply because they denounced Ortega’s brutal regime and advocated for freedom and democracy.
As a result of the persecution of the Church, one of our most beloved and respected pastors, Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez of Managua was made to leave the country and Fr Edwin Román had to flee to live in exile in the United States, where they now both reside. A total of seven priests are in jail. Countless other priests have had to flee Nicaragua, and we don’t know how many more will be forced to do so.
Following the non-violent and widespread anti-government protest in April 2018, Ortega launched an attack on all dissenting voices and his regime has become increasingly brutal. Since the protest, nearly 400 Nicaraguans have been killed due to state violence, as certified by reputable international human rights organisations, which concluded that crimes against humanity have been perpetrated by the Ortega regime.
I would like to appeal to church leaders all over the world to make their voices heard and stand in support and solidarity with all the oppressed people of Nicaragua. Unspeakable crimes are being committed. We cannot let any more innocent people die. Impunity reigns in the country and the regime has turned Nicaragua into a police state. The regime’s persecution and hatred of the Catholic Church is unwarranted and morally reprehensible.
I understand the enormous responsibilities that rest upon the shoulders of any senior Catholic leader in these difficult and complex times. Nicaragua is a small and impoverished country, but we are a people who simply aspire to live in a democracy where justice and the rule of law prevail. I have made a public plea to Pope Francis, asking the Holy Father to speak out in support of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and condemn Ortega’s brutal persecution.
I also respectfully call upon all cardinals, bishops, priests and faithful to support the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, and in particular Bishop Álvarez, the jailed priests and the innocent political prisoners. I believe there is more the Catholic community could do. I would ask for prayers, and also that the sacrifice of the Mass is offered for this intention.
We ought to make our voices heard and do all we humanly can to bring this persecution to an end.
(Bianca Jagger is Founder, President and Chief Executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation; Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador to Abolish the Death Penalty, and Member of the Executive Director’s Leadership Council of Amnesty International USA).
*Article originally published in Catholic Herald