Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega has taken bold steps to suppress the clergy and public manifestations of the Catholic faith. Recently, four priests were handed ten-year prison sentences on charges of conspiracy, based on long-standing government claims that the Church supported unlawful pro-democracy protests.

Holy Week Procession in Granada, Nicaragua

People gather for a Holy Week procession in Granada, Nicaragua.

Jonah McKeown

Jonah McKeown is a staff writer and podcast producer for CNA. He has a master’s degree from the University of Missouri School of Journalism and has worked as a writer, producer, and videographer. He is based in St. Louis.

By: Jonah McKeown

In testimony to a U.S. congressional human rights commission, two prominent human rights experts decried the ongoing repression of the Catholic Church by Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega and urged additional action by the U.S. to oppose Ortega’s regime.

Ortega’s government has in recent years detained, imprisoned, and likely tortured numerous Catholic leaders, including at least one bishop and several priests. His government has also taken action to repress Catholic radio and television stations, and driven Catholic religious orders, including the Missionaries of Charity, from the country.

The regime also expelled Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the former apostolic nuncio in Nicaragua, from the country, a move the Vatican called “incomprehensible.”

Ortega, who leads Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front party, has governed Nicaragua continuously since 2007 along with his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is now the vice president. The regime has variously been accused of corruption, voter fraud, imprisoning critical dissenters and journalists, and committing violent human rights abuses against the people of Nicaragua.

The experts speaking on December 15 to the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) called on Pope Francis to explicitly condemn Ortega’s a ctions. In August, Pope Francis called for “peaceful coexistence” between people and institutions in Nicaragua, drawing ire from Ortega.

“Every kind of religion is suffering the repression of this regime,” Bianca Jagger, a Catholic human rights activist, testified to the committee, but in particular, she said, Ortega is seeking to “destroy the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.” Jagger is Nicaraguan and said she knows personally many of the Catholics who have been detained in the country.

She spoke most passionately about Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who has  been detained since August and was recently charged with “damaging the Nicaraguan government and society.” The night the bishop was taken into custody, other priests, seminarians, and a layman also were arrested and placed in the El Chipote prison, known for being a place of torture for opponents of the regime.

Jagger called Álvarez “a man of God at the mercy of a murderous regime,” who she believes has been imprisoned because of his work in fighting for the rights of “not just of the Catholic faithful, but of all the people of Nicaragua.”

She also said she has pleaded with Pope Francis to condemn Ortega’s actions.

Representative Chris Smith (R-New Jersey), cochair of the TLHRC and a Catholic, said Ortega’s recent repression of Catholics represents a “new low point” even after decades of harsh rule. Citing reporting from the Catholic News Agency, Smith noted that there have been at least 190 instances of government attacks on Catholics and Catholic institutions in Nicaragua since 2018. Smith said a recording of the December 15 hearing will be sent to the Vatican.

Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), another co-chair of the committee, said Ortega’s actions represent a “systematic attack on the Catholic Church as an institution” and that Ortega has overseen a “complete collapse for the respect of human rights in Nicaragua.” He said strategies that rely only on sanctions — which he said tend to hurt the poor of a country rather than their wealthy leaders, who can often evade them — “lack imagination.”

“What we’ve been doing has not been working,” McGovern commented.

Eddy Acevedo, chief of staff and senior adviser to the president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, testified that Ortega sees organized religion as a threat to his authoritarian regime.

Acevedo recommended that the United States expel the Nicaraguan ambassador to the U.S. immediately, an idea for which McGovern expressed support. Acevedo also called for an investigation into whether loans are being improperly given to Nicaragua that Ortega is using to prop up his regime.

Under U.S. law, the U.S. has a mandate to oppose any loan or financial or technical assistance to the Government of Nicaragua for projects in the country, with the exception of funding to address basic human needs or to promote democracy.

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