The crackdown particularly continues to target the Catholic Church, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says in a comprehensive report.
by Massimo Introvigne
Dated August 2022, the USCIRF’s report on Nicaragua is a powerful indictment of the massive violations of freedom of religion or belief perpetrated by the Marxist, pro-Russian, and pro-Chinese regime of President Daniel Ortega.
The USCIRF, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). Its Commissioners are appointed by the President and by Congressional leaders of both political parties.
The report notes that “Nicaragua is embroiled in a social and political crisis that started after the government’s repression of peaceful protests in April 2018.” Catholic support for the protesters led to a crackdown on the Catholic Church.
“Since 2018, the report summarizes, government actors and citizens sympathetic to the regime have routinely intimidated and harassed worshippers; violently targeted churches; and harassed clergy with tactics including defamatory accusations, arbitrary arrests, death threats on social media, deportations, and violent attacks.”
Some specific incidents are mentioned. “Managua’s auxiliary bishop Silvio Báez relocated to Rome in 2019 and later settled in Miami, FL following sustained harassment by the government and its supporters, including an assassination plot. In 2020, an unknown assailant set off an incendiary device in a chapel attached to the Cathedral of Managua in what Catholic officials called a premeditated assault. The arson attack resulted in extensive damage to the interior of the building, including the charring of a 400-year-old wooden crucifix in the center of the room.”
The situation of those jailed for their participation in the protests also raises religious liberty concerns. The USCIRF “received reports that prison authorities have deprived prisoners of their religious rights by prohibiting access to bibles, consultations with clergy, or communal prayer services with their fellow prisoners.”
The report notes that in 2022 the repression of the Catholic Church escalated to “persecution.” Even the Vatican nuncio, Monsignor Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, was expelled from Nicaragua. “In May, police trailed Rolando Álvarez, bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa and Estelí, and surrounded his family’s home. As a result, Álvarez took refuge in a church in Managua—which the police then surrounded—and started a hunger strike to protest his treatment by the government. Police eventually withdrew their perimeter around the church, allowing the bishop to leave Managua and return to his own diocese in Matagalpa, but escorted his vehicle for the two-hour journey.” However, “on August 5 Nicaragua’s national police announced an investigation into Álvarez for allegedly ‘organizing violent groups’ and encouraging them ‘to carry out acts of hate against the population.’ Since then, he has been under de facto house arrest at his residence with police in riot gear setting up a cordon outside and preventing him from leaving to conduct Mass at the cathedral.”
After the publication of the USCIRF report, on August 19 the police “kidnapped” Bishop Álvarez from his residence in Matagalpa and took him to a house in Managua where he is currently detained, while five priests of his diocese arrested with him were sent to jail. The incident was condemned by the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and nearby countries, and by the Secretary General of the United Nations António Guterres.
The regime also targeted well-known Catholic priests who criticized the regime, the USCIRF reports. Father Manuel Salvador García of Nandiame’s church was assaulted by pro-regime activists, and tried “to defend himself with a machete.” He “was sentenced in June  to two years in prison for threatening the crowd with a weapon, and later sentenced to another two years and eight month” for having allegedly assaulted a woman activist. Father José Leonardo Urbina, was arrested for “abuse of a minor,” but fellow Catholics largely regard charges as trumped up, the report says.
Catholic institutions have been shut down under various administrative pretexts, including schools, universities, radio and TV stations, and the centers of the Missionaries of Charity, the order established by Mother Teresa.
The United States have placed Nicaragua on its Special Watch List for severe violations of religious freedom. The USCIRF recommends that it remains on the Special Watch List, and that sanctions should be imposed against the officers most responsible for religious persecution.