Nicaraguans Risk Losing Their Last Havens as Regime Targets Their Churches

Nicaraguans have seen their political rights crumble at the hands of President Daniel Ortega. Now, religious freedom may slip out of their grasp as the regime targets the clergy.

Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica demonstrate against the government of President Daniel Ortega in 2021. (Image Credit: EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP via Getty Images)

Nicaraguans living in Costa Rica demonstrate in San José to commemorate the third anniversary of the beginning of the protests against the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, on April 18, 2021. Nicaragua's political crisis erupted in April 2018, when protests mushroomed into a popular uprising that was met with a brutal crackdown in which hundreds were killed. (Image Credit: EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP via Getty Images)

Written by
Christopher Hill

News consumers who have spared attention for recent events in Latin America may have come across the story of Catholic bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos, who was subjected to two weeks of “parish arrest” in his church in Nicaragua. Authorities accused him of organizing violent groups and inciting acts of hatred to justify their actions.

On August 18, authorities chose to escalate by taking Álvarez into custody, along with eight other priests and laypeople. His arrest prompted Nicaraguans to rally at other churches to protect their priests. Members of the worldwide Catholic clergy have voiced their support for and solidarity with Álvarez, whose case is just the latest example of the Nicaraguan regime’s campaign to close the country’s civic space.

Religious persecution

Before his arrest, Bishop Álvarez openly criticized the government of Daniel Ortega, who has presided over an era of political deterioration in Nicaragua. In May, Álvarez launched a hunger strike to protest police harassment against him and his family. Álvarez is not the only member of the Catholic clergy to face government persecution in recent months. In March, the government expelled the Vatican’s ambassador, Archbishop Waldemar Stanisław Sommertag, without explanation. In May, police held Father Harving Padilla hostage in his Masaya parish for over 10 days after he criticized the government’s closure of human rights organizations. In July, the Missionaries of Charity, an order founded by Mother Teresa and active in Nicaragua for over three decades, was shut down. Authorities shuttled 18 nuns to the border with Costa Rica and forced them to cross—by foot—into exile. In mid-August, Father Óscar Benavidez Dávila was detained after delivering a Sunday mass in which he asked for prayers for Álvarez and said that “the truth cannot be silenced.” With Father Manuel García, Monsignor Leonardo Urbina, Benavidez, and now Álvarez being taken into custody, at least four clergy members have entered detention since June.

The government has also looked beyond the pulpit, with ordinary worshippers bearing the consequences. Officers who surrounded Padilla’s church in May, for example, asked parishioners for their names and addresses. And in mid-August, the parishioners of a Ciudad Darío church were prevented from entering, forcing the priest to lead a mass from its atrium and give communion through a chain-link fence. The attacks on religious freedom have extended to the media: Cable companies were ordered to stop carrying television channel Canal Católico in May. In August, the government shuttered Catholic radio stations affiliated with Álvarez.

Obliterating the press and civil society

While the recent crackdown on religious worship may seem audacious, it is consistent with the Ortega regime’s efforts to consolidate power after the demonstrations of April 2018, which it violently put down. The rule of law collapsed as authorities turned on protesters who opposed social security reforms. Over 355 people died during the ensuing crackdown, which stretched well into 2019; others disappeared or were detained. Some 190 political prisoners were still in custody as of June 2022. In the years since the protests were crushed, official repression has set the tempo for everyday life in Nicaragua.

The recent shuttering of Catholic outlets fits into a larger effort to extirpate the country’s free press. The same intimidation and harassment techniques that have been employed against the clergy have been used against journalists since 2018; reporters have faced questioning, physical assault, and even death in the pursuit of their work. The government has also forced outlets to close wholesale; as August 2022 wore on, the government pushed at least 15 radio stations off the air. (One outlet, Radio Darío, had operated for 73 years.) More are likely to close. The ruling family itself owns several outlets that disseminate propaganda; the United States is called the “Yankee empire” and prodemocracy demonstrators are labeled “coup plotters” or “terrorists.” On top of this, the publication of “false news,” which is primarily characterized as criticism of the regime, is criminalized. Nicaraguan journalists must essentially operate undercover or flee; at least 140 have done the latter since 2018.

The Ortega regime has additionally turned its attention to NGOs, which are trying to protect the rights it aims to smother. Since April 2018, at least 1,268 NGOs have lost their legal status—over a thousand of them this year to date. Business associations are not safe, either; in early August, legislator Gustavo Porras Cortés introduced legislative amendments that would extend the regime’s control over those groups.

Nicaraguans caught in their regime’s grasp choose escape

As far as Ortega’s government is concerned, any activity that occurs without its imprimatur—religious services, independent journalism, or civic action—are threats to its rule. And so, the regime is attacking the church, the media, and NGOs to keep independent-minded civic actors from opposing it and to intimidate any Nicaraguans who are beyond its explicit control.

The consequences for the clergy, journalists, and activists have become painfully clear since April 2018, as they face persecution, detention, and physical harm. But ordinary Nicaraguans also live in fear; they cannot safely engage in public assembly, private discussion, or religious worship. With their country falling under Ortega’s ever-longer shadow, Nicaraguans—who lack genuine affinity for their president—have voted with their feet. More than 200,000 people have left since 2018, primarily to Costa Rica and the United States.

How the world and the region can respond

With the regime’s ongoing campaign against activists and journalists, and with its willingness to pressure religious figures and worshippers, no institution is sacred. But nations in the Americas and the world at large can put pressure on Managua and help Nicaraguans.

The international community should continue to forcefully condemn the Ortega regime’s growing repression and once again call for the release of all political prisoners, a list that now includes people like Álvarez. The imminent September–October session of the UN Human Rights Council, which will include an interactive dialogue on Nicaragua, presents an opportunity for member states to show their solidarity with the Nicaraguan people while documenting and opposing Ortega’s abuses.

Finally, nations in the Americas can do their part by accommodating the Nicaraguans who have fled since 2018. As Ortega continues his campaign of repression, more Nicaraguans will inevitably seek the freedom to rally, speak privately, and worship, elsewhere.