Representatives of the Nicaraguan clergy in exile are welcoming the statements by Pope Francis in which he condemns the Ortega-Murillo regime –which he described as a "Hitlerian dictatorship"-- and expresses his solidarity with the "testimony" of Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, a political prisoner.
"The statements are a major support for the Church," says Father Erick Díaz of the Tuma La Dalia parish, now exiled in Chicago, United States. Father Uriel Vallejos of Sébaco, Matagalpa, and now exiled in Spain, highlights them as the Holy See sounding an "alarm bell" to make the Nicaraguan reality visible to the whole world.
Both Vallejos and Díaz belong to the Diocese of Matagalpa, which belligerently supports its jailed bishop, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, while the Catholic Church's Episcopal Conference remains silent, for fear of repression.
The Ortega-Murillo regime "is afraid –panic-stricken– of the Church and of the people manifesting their faith in the processions," affirms Father Vallejos in this interview, commenting on why the regime has prohibited the Stations of the Cross, while predicting that people will flock to the temples. Meanwhile, Father Díaz calls on public officials who are Catholic and who support the regime, "to question themselves, for so many deaths, so much repression, so much incarceration, so many disintegrated families that have left the country, and yet they keep on saying that "everything's fine". That kind of faith is passive, it is a faith that must ask itself: Which side am I on at this moment in history?"
This past Thursday marked one month since Monsignor Rolando Álvarez was locked up in a maximum security cell in La Modelo prison. He had already been a political prisoner for several months. Father Uriel, do you know how the bishop is doing in prison? Have his family members or ecclesiastical authorities visited him?
Father Erick: Up til now we haven't gotten any information other than what the dictator has said, that he had been taken to La Modelo prison. Starting that same day, his family has been bringing him food, but they haven't been able to see him.
Everyone is concerned —the parishioners, the priests, the Church. We're all extremely worried because we don't know how the bishop is. We don't know if he is being tortured. We know that he must be suffering ever since they put him in a maximum security cell, because we know what political prisoners have said about the conditions there.
He has no light, everything is dark, you lose track of time. The situation is very worrying and we continue to demand his release because he is not a criminal and they are treating him worse than a criminal. He is a man of God and we need to know where he is and how he is.
What kind of impact have Pope Francis' statements this past week about Monsignor Álvarez had on the Nicaraguan clergy, on you two, and on the parishioners? The Pope said that we have a bishop –a serious and correct man– in prison, and that he is giving his testimony because he refused to be forced into exile.
Father Erick: Giving testimony means being a witness to something and Monsignor Rolando has said on several occasions: "A Christian can bend like an iron rod, but will not be broken." He said that to the young people in Sebaco, Matagalpa. I believe that Monsignor Rolando is a man of his word. What he says, he does. He doesn't only preach, he puts it into practice. So if he is giving testimony, it is because he is embracing the cross, he is wanting to be God's witness in this difficult situation.
What the Pope has said is very encouraging. The Pope is very well informed, and I think it is a very strong endorsement of the Church. He says what he thinks, and we are praying and very grateful to the Holy Father for being close to Nicaragua.
Could this gesture of solidarity from the Pope have an impact on the national and international campaigns demanding the release of Monsignor Rolando Álvarez?
Father Uriel: Of course. The testimony that Monsignor Rolando is giving has already had international impact. It has impacted the Church and Nicaraguan society, and has also had an impact in other countries. At all levels of the clergy –bishops, priests– this is a warning bell when it's the Supreme Pontiff who is saying these things. We have to analyze the statements from the perspective of a vision deeply rooted in justice, truth, and democracy, because human rights are something to which we all must aspire.
The way in which political prisoners are being treated and, in this specific case, how such an acclaimed and devoted person–the bishop, a religious leader– is being treated, and that the Holy Father is describing the attitudes of the regime towards the Church, towards society… Well, he is warning us all as lay people and clergy that we must always respond with the truth in the midst of the many painful realities in which we are living.
The Pope also described the Nicaraguan regime as a Hitlerian and communist dictatorship, which is persecuting the Catholic Church –a vulgar dictatorship. What kind of impact will this major statement of the Pope have on the Nicaraguan Church? Some people hope that after this pronouncement by the Pope, the Episcopal Conference will break its silence. Others say that fear will prevail, because in Nicaragua the Church is also subjected to this prison.
Father Erick: I believe that what the Pope said is very powerful, because all the Conferences, all the Christians, all the priests of the world listen to the Pope. He is making visible the crude reality our country is going through.
As for the Church in Nicaragua, I think it will continue to remain silent, because the repression is brutal. Anyone who says anything, the police will be there in a minute, surrounding, threatening, assaulting.
I think the Church will continue to opt for silence, for prayer. But those of us on the outside continue to be vigilant and firm in demanding the bishop's release, and we continue to pray.
With respect to what the pope said about the dictatorship, what came to his mind was the [Russian] dictatorship [that started in] 1917 and [Hitler's dictatorship in] the 1930s. They were cruel dictatorships. They had no qualms in killing people. Today we're seeing the same thing. That is why the pope respectfully said: "I believe that those who lead this country are unbalanced." The people of Nicaragua already know that those governing the country are not using reason because they are intoxicated with power and revenge. So they direct their revenge on the suffering people of Nicaragua and anyone who raises their voice.
The fact that the Pope has condemned the Ortega regime in such an emphatic, categorical manner also suggests that, at least for the moment, there is no dialogue underway. Father Uriel, do you believe that international pressure can now be more effective?
Father Uriel: We already have the international studies about the realities of the deaths. The international community and governments haven't remained silent, and we are seeing more and more pronouncements. But they can't just be words on paper. We need actions, because what the regime cares about, what it fights for, is money. So we have to look for ways to influence and impact. For both the Church and the world at large, for believers and non-believers, it is very powerful when the Holy Father speaks from the Vatican to make visible the reality of Nicaragua. He is giving a very strong warning, that the whole world must turn its attention to Nicaragua, to help the country get out of the deep crisis we are going through.
Given the persecution of the church, how are priests relating to the parishioners in your various parishes, when there is such harassment? For example, what are people saying in the parishes that you both were in charge of, and where you're surely still in touch with both the priests and the parishioners?
Father Erick: From the moment the persecution began, people have been afraid, very afraid. We are living in a country of State terror. So the only thing people are doing is praying, because one thing is certain, they cannot take away prayer because people can pray in their bedroom, they can pray in their living room, they can pray on the street. People have not stopped praying, they keep on praying, but the truth is there is a lot of fear. Parishioners are very afraid, as are the priests because they have continued with their mission, although with some caution, accompanying the people of Nicaragua in the different areas of ministry.
To what do you attribute the fact that the regime has already totally prohibited the processions of the Stations of the Cross?
Father Uriel: The regime is afraid –panic-stricken– of the Church because, let's remember, the Church always lives its expression of faith in the pairing of faith-people, people-faith. So when people go out on the streets for the processions, the regime is afraid and in panic that people may decide to denounce the reality of the regime. That is why the regime is afraid of the Church manifesting its faith in the processions and that is why it has done everything it can to repress them. But people are very smart, and they know that if there is a space, they can figure out how to demonstrate, and they will do it, I dare to say, through massive attendance at the temples during these upcoming holy days.
Both of you have been stripped of your Nicaraguan nationality, along with 315 other citizens. Father Uriel, there is even an Interpol detention order out on you. Why are they after you?
Father Uriel: The regime is after me because I was in the city of Sébaco, and I was one of those who put myself out there, in the midst of the bullets, in the crucial moments, on May 14, 2018. They know perfectly well that I have knowledge of the painful reality of what happened, of the killings. This is a history that is always with me, in my history of ministry, because I have never surrendered or been quiet. I have always denounced the regime in the different situations I've been in. For example, when I was in Caritas, I knew about the thefts, the withholding of containers and of humanitarian aid. There were many moments that I knew I was being followed. And then when I denounced the social injustices committed by some members of the Sandinista party –who today are murderers– the regime was in panic that I was there in the city, so more than 600 police officers were deployed to take me out of the city at midnight because they are cowards.
The prophetic voice must always be present and effective where there is pain. What hurts them the most is that we point out their sins, we point out the injustices, the abuses of power that are being carried out in different municipalities. And we are aware that as priests we are pastors, we are persons who are dedicated to, and immersed in, the reality of the people. We live among and accompany the people. We don't hand down orders, we accompany the people, illuminating their reality from the Gospel. This is something the regime just doesn't understand.
This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.