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MATAGALPA, Nicaragua (ChurchMilitant.com) - Nicaraguans and Catholics worldwide are unsettled by what many perceive to be a limp-wristed response from Rome concerning the Nicaraguan government's arrest of Bp. Rolando Álvarez.
Police forces, operating under the auspices of the Ortega regime in Nicaragua, raided the chancery where Bp. Álvarez of the diocese of Matagalpa and several of his companions had been held in virtual house arrest since Aug. 5.
The raid occurred in the dead of night on Friday, with officers breaching the building at approximately 3 a.m. to arrest the prelate on charges of attempting to "organize violent groups."
According to a police statement, the bishop is currently under house arrest in the capital. The Holy Father, addressing the situation on Sunday, Aug. 21, called for "peaceful coexistence" and a "sincere and open dialogue."
"I am closely following," he remarked, "with worry and sorrow, the situation created in Nicaragua ... which involves people and institutions."
The bishop's companions were taken to a prison called "El Chipote." El Chipote has been characterized as a torture center for the political prisoners of the Ortega regime by former inmates and human rights activists. According to Oxford Languages, "el chipote" in Latin American Spanish translates roughly to "the swelling on the head formed after a hard blow."
Catholics and activists have been troubled by what they perceive to be a lack of urgency from Rome.
According to Phil Lawler of CatholicCulture.org, the Vatican might be attempting behind-the-scenes diplomacy, but its efforts seem to be in vain and may signal weakness to observers.
Before Pope Francis mentioned the situation in Nicaragua, Bianca Jagger, a Nicaraguan human rights activist, said she was "deeply saddened and concerned, surprised, by the silence of the Holy Father."
Responding to the chancery raid, the exiled Nicaraguan prelate, Bp. Silvio Báez, said in an Aug. 21 sermon, "It is necessary to ask for freedom. We must not negotiate with the person [Ortega]. We must ask for freedom because they are innocent." Some think this was said in response to the Vatican's soft approach.
The pope, routinely in the media spotlight, has the potential to draw awareness to the plight of Nicaraguan Catholics, which has drawn little attention from traditional outlets. Jagger, in her interview with Crux, credits the Catholic media with pushing the situation into the news.
She commented, "The fact that Ortega and Murillo have launched such a violent, brutal, relentless war against the Catholic Church is sort of forcing the media. I don't understand why. Perhaps because Catholic media is now covering this ... secular media feel obliged to report on it."
Daniel Ortega has been president of Nicaragua for almost 15 years and is famous for his role as the leader of the Sandinista regime in the 1980s. He has been attempting to crush opposition to his government for roughly the last five years.
In 2018, the government triggered serious unrest when it forcibly smashed a protest movement. Some organizations estimate that more than 550 people were killed in the ensuing civil strife.
The international community considered the measures to be harsh, and the Catholic Church came out strongly against the violence.
Ever since then, Ortega has claimed that the Church is attempting a coup on him. He has accused clerics of "terrorism" and has even called priests and bishops "demons in cassocks." Ortega exiled the papal nuncio and recalled the Nicaraguan ambassador to the Vatican. Numerous Catholic radio stations have been forcibly shut down.
These events are unsurprising, as the Church has long since played a role in resisting violent actors in the region, especially in El Salvador. Bishop Rolando Álvarez has been a particularly outspoken critic of the regime. According to Jagger, the Catholic Church is now the only serious source of resistance to Ortega's government. Voices of opposition in the press, opposing parties and even in the Sandinista old guard have been crushed.
To many Catholics familiar with the history of Central America, there is serious concern that the situation might devolve into something similar to the Cristero War. The government of Mexico began a campaign of bloody suppression against the Catholic Church in the mid-1920s. Faithful Catholics took up arms to defend their rights and started a guerilla war against the government. The Mexican government martyred numerous clergy and laymen before a ceasefire was declared, and the Church's role in Mexican society was permanently weakened. The Cristeros felt that the Vatican's response to the bloodletting was underwhelming. Almost 100 years later, Nicaraguans are feeling the same frustration.
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