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MANAGUA, Nicaragua (ChurchMilitant.com) - Alarmed by the unabated violence and repression in her native Nicaragua, human rights defender Bianca Jagger has issued an urgent appeal to the international community.
Jagger, an active Catholic, has been a vocal critic of Daniel Ortega's left-wing government, which has overseen a yearslong deadly crackdown on political opponents. She has also been a staunch defender of Catholic leaders who have spoken out against Ortega's persecution of his fellow Nicaraguans.
The human rights defender personally shared a recent appeal with Church Militant on behalf of her Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. It's an eloquent defense of, and petition for, the life of the country's most visible face of resistance: the diocese of Matagalpa's Bp. Rolando Jose Álvarez Lagos.
"Bishop Álvarez Lagos, following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, is 'the good shepherd who will lay down his life for his sheep,'" Jagger asserts. "He is the symbol of resistance in Nicaragua, never faltering in his struggle against tyranny and repression."
She explains how on Feb. 9, Ortega and his vice president Rosario Murillo (Ortega's wife) expelled over 200 opposition leaders from Nicaragua to the United States. According to Jagger, among those boarding a chartered flight were "six presidential pre-candidates, students, 'campesinos' [farmers] and business leaders, journalists and priests."
Included in that number was Bp. Álvarez, who is considered Ortega's and Murillo's "most eminent prisoner" and a man whom the couple was "eager to get rid of."
The bishop, however, rejected the government's ultimatum of "exile or jail." Jagger repeated reports that the bishop said of the over 200 people being transported out of Nicaragua, "[L]et them go free; I will pay their sentences."
Like the Good Shepherd, he refused to leave the country or abandon his flock to the Ortega–Murillo regime.
On the same day that the exiled Nicaraguans were transported to the United States, Álvarez was transferred to La Modelo prison, which Jagger says is considered "one of the most brutal in Latin America."
One day later, on Feb. 10, Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years plus four months in prison by one of the regime's judicial yes-men. Jagger reiterated the presiding judge's declaration of the prelate's offenses:
The defendant Rolando José Álvarez Lagos is held to be a "traitor to the country, guilty of being the author of crimes to undermine the national security and sovereignty, spreading fake news through information technology, obstructing an official in the performance of his duties, aggravated disobedience or contempt of authority, all committed concurrently and to the detriment of society and the State of the Republic of Nicaragua."
The bishop was also stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship, leaving him stateless.
Since then, no one outside the prison has seen or communicated with Álvarez. Jagger said: "I appeal to the international community to condemn the Ortega–Murillo regime's cruel, illegal and unjust sentencing of the bishop ... and to do everything in their power to obtain his release. His life is at stake."
Both Ortega's human rights violations and his crackdown on opposition figures have been going on for decades. But in 2018, the Ortega–Murillo brew boiled over after the government announced social security reform by raising payroll taxes and cutting retirement benefits.
When anti-government protests erupted across the country, government security forces and allied civilian militias reacted with violence. At least 355 people were killed, about 2,000 injured and 1,600 jailed, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Hundreds more were arrested, and an estimated 50 thousand fled into exile. Jagger describes them as having "voted with their feet."
Catholic leaders who gave protesters shelter in their churches were branded as "terrorists" and "devils in cassocks." In an August 2022 interview, Jagger summed up the situation: "Ortega and Murillo have declared a war against the Catholic Church."
In recent months, attacks against the Church have ratcheted up. Just this week, Nicaragua closed the Vatican embassy in Managua. Earlier this month, Ortega banned the celebration of traditional public processions, including the Stations of the Cross for this Lenten season.
Last August, the 76-year-old dictator ordered the closure of seven Catholic radio stations. The month before, he expelled two congregations of nuns — including the Missionaries of Charity order founded by Mother Teresa.
In one of his last known homilies, Álvarez told the people of Nicaragua to take heart:
Evil is defeated by the power of good. Good is always more powerful. Good is eternally powerful. Evil is tremendously limited, even though it makes more noise. Evil, by its demonic nature, always tries to confuse us by making us think that it's the one that wins and that it's greater than good, but this is a temptation from Satan to make us despair, to make men and women of goodwill despair.
Jagger is grateful to the Church leaders who, like her, have issued public statements condemning the war on the Church in Nicaragua.
In her appeal, she thanks and quotes the Spanish bishops who implored the Nicaraguan government "to listen to the voice of the people they serve, make their decisions in a spirit of service for the good of all and release prisoners incarcerated for political reasons."
She cites the statement issued by Honduran Bp. José Antonio Canales, who explained that Bp. Álvarez "is a thorn in the side [of the regime] precisely because he is so loved by his people." Canales also called out the corruption of the Ortega–Murillo regime: "In Nicaragua, they can fabricate any crime against you because there is control of all branches of government by the executive."
But Jagger notes that the Episcopal Conference of Bishops of Nicaragua has remained silent, neither condemning the current regime's persecution of Catholics nor calling for the release of prisoners, including their brother bishop.
Pope Francis has remained mostly silent on the issue. But in an interview published on March 10 — one month after Álvarez's sentencing — Pope Francis called out Ortega as "unstable" and likened his Sandinista government to the communist dictatorship of 1917 and the Nazi Germany of 1935.