Whether through immediate expulsion, banishment, refusal of entry or forced exile, some 151 national and foreign priests and nuns have been forced to leave Nicaragua in the last five years. These repressive actions were ordered by the dictatorial couple of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, according to a study by lawyer and researcher Martha Patricia Molina.
Some 76 nuns from different religious congregations have been expelled from the country, along with six Nicaraguan-born priests. Another 23 priests and seven nuns were blocked from entering or reentering the country, with no prior or subsequent explanations.
Likewise, the regime also directly banished eight priests, while 31 others chose exile after suffering acts of intimidation, threats of prison, and political surveillance in their temples.
The persecution against the Catholic Church deepened in 2022, and has escalated greatly in 2023. Of the total number of religious leaders forced to leave Nicaragua, 34 of them did so in the first half of this year. This data has been collected and made public in the fourth installment of the report: “Nicaragua: A Church under persecution?” compiled by Attorney Martha Patricia Molina.
Although the majority of the nuns who have had to leave are foreigners, there are also Nicaraguans. “Around ten women’s religious congregations have been affected, and I believe that in most of the attacks on religious leaders, those who have suffered the most are the nuns,” Martha Molina stated during in an interview on the internet television news program Esta Noche.
2022 and 2023 the “darkest” years for the Nicaraguan Catholic Church
The researcher stressed that from 2019 to 2021, there were “fluctuations” in the attacks against the religious leaders. However, these last two years “have been the most terrible for the Catholic Church.”
“This year alone , not counting September and October, there’ve been 205 aggressions so far,” Martha Patricia Molina detailed. “Last year, I said that  was the darkest year for the Catholic Church, but it’s no longer the worst, because 2023 is. Every day brings denunciations of new attacks.”
In 2018, according to her study, 90 hostile acts against the Church were documented. There were 84 in 2019; 62 in 2020; 55 in 2021; 171 in 2022; and up through August of 2023, there’ve been 205. Among the many hostile acts are: 117 attacks, police sieges or other obstacles aimed against temples and religious buildings; 82 acts of repression against lay figures; 80 profanations or burglaries; and 71 graffiti hate messages. There were also 3,240 Church processions that were barred from the public spaces.
Priests and nuns have suffered 214 repressive acts, including death threats, public smears, verbal and physical aggression, police sieges, persecution, exile, and imprisonment.
More abductions of priests are feared
The dictatorship is currently holding eleven priests as political prisoners. Three have been sentenced for fabricated crimes, following bogus trials with no right to defense. Four are being held captive in their seminary; three are jailed in Managua; and the exact placement of one has still not been confirmed.
The last three priests to be abducted by the police are: Julio Ricardo Norori and Ivan Centeno from the Esteli dioceses and Cristobal Gadea from Jinotega. All were summarily picked up by the police on October 1st, in a raid that included threats to another five priests working in the north of Nicaragua.
Martha Molina assures that these won’t be the last religious leaders to be detained, because she has information that there’s a warrant out for the arrest of another three priests.
“The abductions and imprisonments are going to continue over the coming hours or weeks. What [the Ortega camp] wants is to eradicate the Catholic Church altogether. In some communities, they’re not even going to permit the presence of a priest,” predicted the expert.
“They don’t even conduct these abductions under the light of their illegal laws. Right now, we’re being faced with forced disappearances,” the attorney warned. She offered the example o Father Fernando Zamora, who’s now been detained for “over 80 days (..) without us knowing anything about him.”
Confiscations and annulled nationality
At least 19 Nicaraguan religious leaders – including imprisoned bishop Rolando Álvarez, exiled bishop Silvio Baez, and 17 other priests – have been declared “traitors to the country” and stripped of their nationality, according to the study.
Molina indicates that, of the 19 Catholic leaders deprived of their nationality (2 bishops, 14 priests, a deacon and two seminarians), 17 are in exile and two in Nicaragua: one in prison and one confined within a house in Managua used for further training.
Further, according to the study, thirteen properties belonging to the Catholic Church have been confiscated by the Nicaraguan government, despite the fact that Article 44 of the Nicaraguan Constitution prohibits the confiscation of property.
The Ortega regime has also arbitrarily closed four universities, two high schools, 15 media outlets, seven religious orders and eleven social or construction projects of the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, Molina affirmed.
During the presentation of the study, Martha Molina, who is in forced exile and a member of the Editorial Board of the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, noted that it’s been the lay people themselves who have documented the attacks on the Church.
She didn’t rule out the possibility that the number of attacks has been higher, since “there’s little or no reporting by religious authorities, and growing fear and caution on the part of the populace and Church congregations about documenting the hostile acts.”
Evangelical churches not immune either
In the case of the Protestant churches, the study registered 70 attacks, principally the closure of Christian NGOs and the seizing of their assets. However, there’ve also been repressive acts against pastors and the arbitrary closure of Protestant media outlets, universities and social projects.
“The Catholic Church and the Evangelical Christian Churches are being cruelly persecuted by the Sandinista dictatorship,” Molina sustained.
The researcher cautioned that the dictatorship has designated three plainclothes police or paramilitary to each Church parish to “observe and analyze the priest’s homily.” For that reason, she considers that the latest abducted priests were the product of that “surveillance.”
“The only thing the priests do is to preach their sermons in the light of the Gospel. However, since the Gospel is in itself a denunciation, when the priest speaks for example of justice, of peace, of love, they [government plants] take it as an attack on the dictatorship,” explained Attorney Martha Molina.