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Nicaraguans with signs stand in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Jose, Costa Rica.Nicaraguans exiled in Costa Rica attend the "Vigil of Faith and Freedom" outside the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Jose, Costa Rica, Aug. 19, 2022, to protest the detention Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. (OSV News photo/Mayela Lopez, Reuters)

(OSV News) -- Nicaraguans overwhelmingly disapprove of the conviction and imprisonment of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, according to a survey in the increasingly repressing Central American country, where the Sandinista regime continues cracking down on the Catholic Church.

The poll by CID Gallup showed 79% of Nicaraguans responded unfavorably when asked their opinion on the 26-year prison sentence given to Bishop Álvarez, after being accused of treason. A surprising 56% of Sandinista supporters viewed the sentence unfavorably, according to the poll which was conducted in mid-June. 

“He is the moral reserve of an entire people. … His pain, his kidnapping, his unjust imprisonment is the picture of what Nicaragua lives,” a Nicaraguan priest living in exile said of Bishop Álvarez. “He is loved for his conviction, his firmness and his love for God and the people.”

The poll was published amid press reports of Bishop Álvarez being moved from the notorious Modelo prison and prepared for exile. The reports, which were first published in independent Nicaraguan media outlets and news agency Reuters, cited ecclesial and diplomatic sources saying the bishop had left the prison on July 3 and was being held in the installations of the Nicaraguan bishops’ conference.

Bishop Álvarez, however, refused to leave the country, according to Nicaraguan news organization Confidencial. He was returned to prison July 5, the news outlet reported.

Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace, issued a July 12 statement upon confirmation of the facts of the bishop’s status. “We received news last week of yet another breakdown in negotiations to free Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, Nicaragua -- unjustly sentenced to twenty-six years in prison and stripped of his citizenship in February,” Bishop Malloy said. “I urge the United States and the international community to continue praying for the bishop and advocating for his release.”

Nicaraguan authorities have not provided information on the bishop or his well-being since March 24, when he was filmed having a meal with relatives and coerced into a brief interview. The Nicaraguan bishops’ conference and Vatican didn’t respond to requests for information. Government spokeswoman and President Daniel Ortega’s wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, did not answer questions sent by OSV News, but sent an attachment stating in multicolored text: “Peace, our victory, in light, life and truth, in a free fatherland, we walk proudly, the new world!”

Bishop Álvarez has repeatedly refused to leave Nicaragua, even as persecution of the prelate and the country’s Catholic community escalated.

“I know him. He’s a brave man who doesn’t fold,” Bishop José Antonio Canales of Danlí, Honduras, told OSV News. “Msgr. Rolando Álvarez is a man of proven faith, brave, determined, firm in his convictions, and he does not cave easily.”

Auxiliary Bishop José Silvio Báez of Managua, who has been exiled in Miami since 2019, said in a series of tweets that Bishop Álvarez told him just prior to his arrest “that he would not leave Nicaragua for any reason unless the pope ordered him to do so. He added that it was a decision he made in conscience before God. Hence, there is nothing to negotiate.”

Bishop Báez also tweeted, “As an innocent citizen, he has a right to be in his country. Additionally, a bishop who is a shepherd doesn’t go far from his people because a dictatorship imposes it on him.”

“He is the moral reserve of an entire people. … His pain, his kidnapping, his unjust imprisonment is the picture of what Nicaragua lives,” a Nicaraguan priest living in exile said of Bishop Álvarez. “He is loved for his conviction, his firmness and his love for God and the people.”

Ortega and Murillo, have called bishops “terrorists” and “coup mongers” and expelled several church workers, priests and religious from the apostolic nuncio to the Missionaries of Charity.

Church leaders attempted to find an exit to the country’s political crisis through a national dialogue in 2018, after street protests erupted demanding Ortega’s ouster. Priests opened their parishes to protesters attacked by police and paramilitaries and later accompanied the families of political prisoners.

Nicaragua severed ties with the Vatican after Pope Francis said of the situation earlier this year, “We have a bishop in prison, a very serious and capable man, who wanted to give his testimony and did not accept exile. It is something from outside of what we are living, as if it were a communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitlerian one in 1935.”

The regime exiled 222 political prisoners and stripped them of their citizenship in February, but Bishop Álvarez refused to board the flight carrying them to Washington. He was subsequently convicted of “undermining national integrity” and spreading false information after a secret trial in which he was denied legal representation of his choice.

The CID Gallup poll, conducted for Confidencial, listed the Catholic Church as the country’s most trustworthy institution with 48% support, nearly double the ruling Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional.

Observers say the regime would prefer Bishop Álvarez be outside of Nicaragua -- especially as the country cracks down on dissent.

“Keeping Álvarez in jail raises the reputational cost for Ortega inside and outside the country,” said Tiziano Breda, researcher at the Istituto Affari Internazionali. “But setting him free in Nicaragua would be a thorn in his side as it would send the message that Nicaraguans have the right to dissent and to speak out against the government.”

He added that “forcing him into exile” and stripping him from his Nicaraguan citizenship -- as it was done in February with the bishop and other exiles -- is “the only way for Ortega to be coherent with his discourse: that internal dissent is maneuvered from abroad.”

In his statement, the U.S. bishops’ International Justice and Peace chairman commended the recent Interamerican Court of Human Rights’ ruling mandating the immediate release of Bishop Álvarez. “The consensus from the international community is clear: the continued incarceration of Bishop Álvarez is unjust and must end as soon as possible,” Bishop Malloy added.

Meanwhile, persecution of the church continues in Nicaragua. Spanish news agency EFE reported that Father Fernando Israel Zamora Silva, chancellor of the Diocese of Siuna, was detained July 10 after celebrating Mass in the capital city of Managua.

Other reported acts of repression include the government harassing and detaining lay church workers and parishioners (as well as other Nicaraguans), freezing Nicaraguan dioceses bank accounts, with accusations of theft and money laundering, confiscating church property, and prohibiting all expression of faith in the streets during Lent and Holy Week. (A recent report stated that between April 2018 and March 2023, the Catholic Church in Nicaragua experienced more than 500 attacks, with at least 90 happening in 2023.)

“May Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, patroness of Nicaragua and the United States, illumine the hearts of all decision-makers, and may her maternal mantle protect the Church in Nicaragua,” Bishop Malloy said.

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