Two bishops, 15 priests and two seminarians who had been imprisoned in Nicaragua have been released and expelled to the Vatican, highlighting an ongoing repression of religious freedom in the Central American country.
Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) welcomed the release of the 19 clerics but expressed concern because they were forced to leave the country.
The bishops, priests and seminarians were imprisoned for speaking out against injustices and human rights violations or for merely trying to operate freely.
The release was announced in an official statement by the Nicaraguan Government yesterday (14th January).
The group arrived in Rome on the same day, with the exception of one, who is in Venezuela due to health issues.
Those released include Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa, who was arrested in August 2022 and sentenced to 26 years in prison last year after refusing to be exiled to the USA.
Bishop Isidoro de Carmen Mora Ortega of Siuna – also freed yesterday – was arrested during a major crackdown in December after mentioning Alvarez in a homily.
Regina Lynch, ACN International executive president, said: “It is good news that Bishop Rolando Alvarez is no longer in prison, although it must not be forgotten that he languished there for 16 months.
“We hope that he will be able to receive the needed support to recover after the long period of detainment.
“ACN also rejoices in the release of the remaining bishop, 15 priests and two seminarians who were in prison for a shorter period, but we must highlight how tremendously unjust it is that they have been forced to live apart from their flocks and their families.
“The uncertainty and the fear among the community is also great.”
In October 2023, 12 priests were released from prison and sent to the Vatican, and another group was part of a mass exile to the USA in February 2023.
International pressure, both politically – from Washington, D.C. to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights – and in the media has been intensifying in recent weeks in a context of repression that has few precedents in Latin America.
The Holy See has not issued a formal statement, but its official media outlet, Vatican News, announced the release.
This forced exile of priests adds to the growing list of clerics who have had to leave the country, including Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag who was expelled in March 2022.
The shortage of priests has posed pastoral and administrative difficulties in some dioceses.
Ms Lynch said: “Three of Nicaragua’s dioceses are now headed by bishops who are in exile, namely Matagalpa and Esteli – which were both headed by Alvarez – and Siuna.
“Previously, in 2019, the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez Ortega, went into exile over increased security concerns.
“A further diocese has a bishop over the age of retirement, and the Archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, will be 75 in March.”
A total of 50 priests have been arrested at some point since 2022. According to some estimates, around 15 percent of the country’s clergy are now living abroad.
Some have exiled themselves for fear of arrest and some were deported by the regime, while yet others were denied re-entry to the country after travelling abroad.
The Government has also deported a number of foreign missionaries, such as the Sisters of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Theresa.
Ms Lynch concluded: “Religious freedom is a cornerstone of liberty, and autocratic regimes always fear the witness and voice of those whose lives are dedicated to living and spreading the Gospel of love.
“The restrictions on religious freedom continue in a country where four out of nine dioceses now have bishops living abroad.
“We pray that the Church and the people of Nicaragua will one day be free to speak their minds and to practice their faith without fear or repercussions.”