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As pope calls for dialogue, Nicaraguan police continue harassing Catholics

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Following the arrest of a bishop and 11 others, police continued harassing Nicaraguan Catholics, even as Pope Francis called for “open and sincere” dialogue in the Central American country.

People pray outside the Nicaraguan Embassy in Mexico City Aug. 16, 2022. They were demanding respect for religious freedom in Nicaragua and an end to the persecution of the church and opponents of the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. (CNS photo/Edgard Garrido)

Photos posted to social media showed police and paramilitaries surrounding St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Masaya, Nicaragua, Aug. 21 – the same day Pope Francis expressed “concern and sorrow” for the situation in Nicaragua, where the Catholic Church has suffered increasing persecution from the regime of President Daniel Ortega.

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa remains under house arrest in Managua after being seized in an Aug. 19 raid on the diocesan offices. The 11 other priests and laity arrested alongside the bishop continue languishing in the notorious El Chipote political prison.

Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua visited Bishop Álvarez Aug. 19 and described the bishop as “physically deteriorated, but spiritually strong,” according to the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference. The bishops’ statement was subdued – a reflection of the risks of speaking out in Nicaragua, though prelates outside the country were more vocal.

“I want to tell Nicaraguans not to lose hope; let us trust in the Lord and pray for Bishop Rolando Álvarez and the priests of Matagalpa and the others who are imprisoned together with other laypeople, and all the political prisoners of these countries,” Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez said in his Aug. 21 homily, delivered in Miami, where he is exiled.

His comments followed Pope Francis’ call for dialogue in Nicaragua, where church charitable projects have been prohibited, priests arrested and stopped from celebrating Mass and the Missionaries of Charity expelled. During his Aug. 21 Angelus address, Pope Francis did not specifically mention Bishop Álvarez’s arrest, but he prayed for peace in the country through Mary’s intercession.

“The Vatican has preferred a quiet, backdoor engagement with the government to try and persuade it to downscale its repressive tactics and resume talks with the opposition, rather than public condemnation,” said Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“This stems from the understanding that the louder and more outspoken is the critic against Ortega … the more livid the presidential couple’s reaction is going to be, and any feeble communication channel still possibly open is likely to be shut,” he added. Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, is vice president.

A priest in Nicaragua, who preferred anonymity for security reasons, called the papal comments, “bittersweet,” adding, “They say the pope was not explicit, but at least he broke the silence.”

The pope’s call for dialogue was met with skepticism by many Nicaraguans on social media.

“An ‘open and sincere’ dialogue to restore peaceful coexistence in Nicaragua, as Pope Francis proposes, is only possible without a police state, without political prisoners, and with international guarantors who supervise the agreements,” tweeted prominent Nicaraguan journalist Carlos F. Chamorro, editorial director of the news organization Confidencial.

The Nicaraguan bishops mediated a national dialogue in 2018 after protests erupted, demanding Ortega’s ouster. The talks broke down, however, as the bishops saw little goodwill on the government side.

In a 2021 interview with Catholic News Service, Bishop Álvarez defended the dialogues, which he said were held as “Nicaragua was literally bleeding to death, and it was necessary for all the parties directly involved to sit down and talk to make an effort to find a solution.”

Contributing to this story was Barbara Fraser in Lima, Peru.

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