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Gerard O’ConnellFebruary 12, 2023
Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua, a frequent critic of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, prays at a Catholic church in Managua May 20, 2022. A Nicaraguan court sentenced Bishop Álvarez to more than 26 years in prison Feb. 10, 2023 for conspiracy and spreading false information. (OSV News photo/Maynor Valenzuela, Reuters)

Pope Francis today publicly denounced the sentencing of Nicaragua’s Bishop Rolando Álvarez to 26 years and four months in prison. He also lamented the deportation of more than 200 opponents of President Daniel Ortega’s regime to the United States. He appealed to political leaders in Nicaragua to open their hearts to the sincere search for peace and engage in dialogue.

“I have been much saddened by the news that comes from Nicaragua, and I cannot but remember with concern the bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, whom I love so much, and who was condemned to 26 years in prison, and also the people who were deported to the United States,” the pope told 20,000 Romans and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday, Feb. 12.

On Tuesday, a judge had set Feb. 15 as the date for the sentencing of the bishop, who has provoked the ire of President Ortega. However, on Feb. 10, the appeals court of Managua condemned to Bishop Álvarez to over two decades in prison for treason, undermining national security, spreading false news and other charges, and deprived him of his citizenship after the bishop refused to board the plane to the United States that took 222 other persons, including five priests, a deacon and two seminarians.

Pope Francis today publicly denounced the sentencing of Nicaragua’s Bishop Rolando Álvarez to 26 years and four months in prison.

Two other priests of the Diocese of Granada continue to be detained in a Nicaraguan prison with similar charges.

In a television broadcast, President Ortega said that he had decided to send these people into exile on the advice of his wife, who serves as vice president, because of their opposition to the regime. The regime also stripped them of their citizenship for allegedly “committing acts that undermine independence, sovereignty, and self-determination of the people, and for inciting violence, terrorism, and economic destabilization.”

“I pray for them and for all those who are suffering in that dear country,” Pope Francis said.

“We ask the Lord, through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, to open the hearts of those who have political responsibility and of all the citizens to a sincere search for peace, that is born from truth, from justice, from freedom, and from love, and which is reached through a patient exercise of dialogue,” the pope said.

He concluded by inviting those in the square and those following him online to join him in reciting the Hail Mary, invoking our Lady’s intercession.

The most recent confrontation between the Ortega regime and the opposition in Nicaragua started in 2018, when a proposal to reform the social security system sparked widespread protests. Subsequently, the bishops of Nicaragua sought to act as mediators between the regime and the opposition, but those talks soon collapsed. Bishop Álvarez was one of the mediators.

“We ask the Lord, through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, to open the hearts of those who have political responsibility and of all the citizens to a sincere search for peace.”

The auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, denounced as “irrational and without restraint the hate of the dictatorship of Nicaragua against Monsignor Rolando Álvarez.”

Bishop Álvarez, a vocal critic of President Ortega’s Sandinista regime, is the first bishop to be imprisoned since Mr. Ortega returned to power in 2007.

He was taken into custody by police officers on Aug. 19, 2022, along with priests, seminarians and lay people, for allegedly having attempted to “organize violent groups” with “the aim of destabilizing the Nicaraguan State and attacking the constitutional authorities.”

The bishop was not charged until December, with prosecutors alleging he had committed “crimes of conspiracy to undermine national integrity and propagation of false news through information and communication technologies to the detriment of the Nicaraguan state and society.”

In January, a court in Managua admitted the evidence and ordered Bishop Álvarez to remain under house arrest. He has now been transferred to the high security prison.

“The sentence comes as the crackdown on the Church in Nicaragua intensifies, with ongoing arrests of priests and closures of Church charities and agencies,” Vatican News reported. “In televised remarks following the verdict, Ortega reiterated his accusations of ‘terrorism’ against Bishop Álvarez.”

In 2019, Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez left the Diocese of Managua at Pope Francis’ request after receiving several death threats. He is now living in exile in the United States. In 2022, the government expelled the apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, and 18 Missionaries of Charity.

The president of the Latin American Bishops’ Council expressed “solidarity, closeness and prayer with and for the people of God and their pastors.”

Pope Francis referred to the situation in Nicaragua during the Angelus prayer on Aug. 21, 2022, saying he was closely following developments “with concern and sorrow,” and expressing his hope that “through an open and sincere dialogue, the basis for a respectful and peaceful coexistence might still be found.”

Vatican News reported that on Feb. 6 the president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, joined in expressing solidarity to the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and appealed for the release of the detainees.

In a message released on Saturday, Feb. 11, the president of the Latin American Bishops’ Council, Archbishop Miguel Cabrejos, warned against the weakening of the rights of the Catholic faithful and expressed “solidarity, closeness and prayer with and for the people of God and their pastors.”

“In faith we are comforted by the words of the Gospel: ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted because they live according to God’s plan, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,’” Archbishop Cabrejos, who is also the archbishop of Trujillo and president of the Peruvian Episcopal Conference, wrote. The archbishop announced that, as part of the Central America-Mexico Regional Assembly of the continental phase of the Synod, Mass will be offered in the Cathedral of San Salvador, which houses the relics of St. Óscar Romero, for the intentions of the church in Nicaragua.

The Chilean bishops have also spoken out against the condemnation of Bishop Álvarez, and the bishops of Spain issued a statement expressing their sorrow and concern for “the bishops of the Nicaraguan Episcopal Conference who are suffering persecution by the government for defending the freedom of Nicaraguans.”

The Spanish Catholic hierarchy asked “all Catholics and all people of good will to pray for the peaceful resolution of this conflict and for an active commitment to peace, which has its indisputable foundation in justice.” They also called on the civil authorities to listen to the voice of the people and to release those still imprisoned for political reasons.

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