Noting a “systematic pattern” of cracking down on religion, the U.N. through two Special Rapporteurs asks to terminate the “arbitrary detention” of Bishop Álvarez.
by Massimo Introvigne
The United Nations through two of its Special Rapporteurs on November 7 condemned the government of Nicaragua for its continuing persecution of the Catholic Church. Nazila Ghanea, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, and Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, signed a statement where they said they are “deeply concerned about the systematic patterns of harassment against members of the Catholic Church and other religious denominations by Nicaraguan authorities.”
The U.N. Rapporteurs followed the same model previously used in dealing with China. They sent a private but official letter to the government on Nicaragua on August 2, 2023. Not having received a satisfactory reply, on November 7 they made the letter public and issued an official statement.
The document notes that “the repressive measures adopted by the authorities appear to include the arbitrary arrest and detention of members of the Catholic Church and other religious denominations; their forced deportation and arbitrary prohibitions of entry into the country; the criminalization of their pastoral activities; prohibitions on the performance of religious ceremonies; police harassment at their homes or places of worship; the closure of media outlets, universities and organizations belonging to religious groups, as well as the confiscation of their assets.”
Figures are impressive. According to the document, “It is estimated that since 2022, Nicaraguan authorities have cancelled the legal status of at least 1,000 non-profit organisations, of which more than 320 are said to be of a religious character. In August 2023, the Government cancelled the legal status of the historic Central American University (UCA) run by the Catholic order of the Society of Jesus, and confiscated its facilities. In 2023, it also reportedly cancelled the legal status of two evangelical Christian universities, and another associated with the Catholic Church.”
Not only, the statement stresses, “these acts are contrary to international law,” they also “appear to be part of a broader pattern of repression against different elements of Nicaraguan civil society, especially against persons or entities that are perceived as critical of the Government. In this manner, the authorities are seriously violating, among others, the human rights to freedom of religion or belief, freedom of association, and freedom of expression and opinion.”
On October 18, pursuant to an agreement with the Holy See, all the Catholic priests who had been arrested in Nicaragua were released and deported to Rome. With one exception, the document notes, Bishop “Monsignor Rolando José Álvarez Lagos, who is in on solitary confinement and in conditions of detention that gravely contravene the Nelson Mandela Rules. Monsignor Álvarez has been noted, since the 2018 National Dialogues, for his calls for the release of political prisoners and for pacification and reconciliation among Nicaraguans.” He is, the United Nations statement says, in a situation of “arbitrary detention in which he has been held since August 2022.”
In the case of Bishop Álvarez, it seems that the extremely cautious Vatican approach has not been effective. The United Nations human rights authorities have decided that raising their voices and explicitly denouncing Nicaragua in front of the world may be, at this stage, a better strategy.