Nicaraguan Catholic Bishop Under House Arrest At President’s Order

On August 19th, police raided the home of Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, a prominent critic of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and placed him under house arrest while taking seven of his colleagues to jail. This raid is the most recent example of escalating tensions between the Nicaraguan government and the Catholic Church, which has led to international condemnation from religious leaders, human rights groups, and other opposition figures.

In response to Álvarez’s house arrest, a spokesperson for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said he is “very concerned by the severe closure of democratic and civic space in Nicaragua and recent actions against civil society organizations, including those of the Catholic Church.”

The suppression of prominent Catholic voices has been an ongoing issue in Nicaragua, especially since protests broke out in 2018 over unpopular social security reform. Figures such as Vatican ambassador Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag and Bishop Silvio Báez are among many who were exiled or fled from Nicaragua after they spoke out against President Ortega.

Báez tweeted after news of Álvarez’s house arrest, “with a pained, indignant heart I condemn the nighttime kidnapping of Monsignor Álvarez… once again, the dictatorship has surpassed even its own evil and its diabolical spirit.”

Equally powerful comments were made by Álvarez himself in 2018 months after protests erupted, explaining that he hoped “there would be a series of electoral reforms, structural changes to the electoral authority — free, just and transparent elections, international observation without conditions.” Álvarez’s calls for democratization did not waver over the following four years, therefore posing a threat to Ortega’s regime and leading to his detainment.

When demonstrators originally took to the streets in 2018, members of the Catholic Church were publicly sympathetic to the protestors, offering to mediate talks with the government. According to Al Jazeera, after those talks broke down the church released a statement saying they “would not resume talks while the Nicaraguan people ‘continued to be repressed and murdered,’.

With over 50% of Nicaragua’s population being Catholic, the church’s voice in those moments held significant weight in influencing public opinion. Today, it continues to do so as more Ortega critics are silenced. Using the Catholic Church’s platform to advocate for peace and democratic reform has proven to be dangerous, but also vital. Their power clearly concerns Ortega, which led him to shut down seven church-owned radio stations this month and investigate Catholic leaders based on erroneous accusations.

In addition to the authoritative crackdown on Catholic dissent, the broader silencing of opposition has caused alarm both domestically and internationally. There have been dozens of arrests of political opposition figures, hundreds of demonstrators killed and tortured during protests, and wrongful imprisonments and harassment of journalists. These events have sparked passionate outrage but also immense fear.

From 2018 to 2020, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans fled the country, seeking asylum from persecution and human rights abuses, according to the United Nations.

As these violations have become more overt, so has international criticism. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that the 2021 Nicaraguan presidential election was “a sham election devoid of credibility” that attempted “to establish an authoritarian dynasty unaccountable to the Nicaraguan people.” His remarks echo similar sentiments held by the European Union, Canada, and neighbouring Latin American countries.

Catholic leaders that criticize Ortega are supported by a vast international community that shares their fears for Nicaragua’s future under Ortega. Unfortunately, the global response of strongly worded criticism and sanctions has not sufficiently reigned in Ortega’s 15-year authoritarian grip on power. Moving forward as Ortega intensifies his suppression of all opposition, the global response must also be refocused to better restrain his power.