We Must Do More to Combat Religious Persecution in Nicaragua

By Marco Rubio

As he endured harassment by Nicaragua’s corrupt police force, Matagalpa’s Bishop Alvaro Roland José Álvarez delivered a powerful message to his congregation: “We have to respond to hate with love, despair with hope, and fear with the strength and courage given to us by the resurrected Christ.”

10 days later, the police broke into the bishop’s home under the cover of darkness and detained him without cause. In other words, they kidnapped him. They also abducted five priests and two seminarians, who are now being held captive at the infamous El Chipote prison. Nicaragua’s Catholic faithful will certainly need “strength and courage” to survive this latest round of persecution.

Sadly, this is nothing new in Nicaragua, where brutal dictator Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo rule with an iron fist. This past year, Ortega sought to silence opposing voices through a campaign of intimidation and detention that included the arrest of all seven of his challengers in the 2021 sham presidential election. (Those challengers now languish in El Chipote alongside other unjustly detained political prisoners.) Ortega also shuttered hundreds of civil society organizations, media groups, and schools. No institution that could possibly pose a threat to his tyranny has been left untouched.

That includes the Catholic Church. In 2018, when popular protests against poor governance and regime corruption erupted across Nicaragua, bishops and priests mediated between protestors and the government. Ortega accused them of undermining his authority and began a wave of persecution against those he called the “demons in cassocks.” In the years since, the Catholic News Agency reports “more than 190 attacks against the Catholic Church, its bishops, priests, faithful, and houses of worship,” including a shameful act of arson and sacrilege in the Managua Cathedral.

The arrest of Bishop Álvarez — and the oppression of Monsignors Silvio José Báez Ortega, Juan Abelardo Mata Guevara, and Rolando José Álvarez Lagos, as well as Father Edwin Román Calderón — shows that those attacks will continue so long as Ortega and his wife remain in power.

In response to Bishop Álvarez’s abduction, Pope Francis has expressed “worry and pain.” The Organization of American States and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights have demanded the bishop’s “immediate liberation,” and United Nations Secretary General António Guterres says he is “very concerned.”

These words are not enough. What is happening under the Ortega-Murillo regime is not just cause for “concern” — it’s a deprivation of fundamental rights. The international community can and must do more to stand with Bishop Álvarez and Nicaragua’s Catholics.

That starts with President Joe Biden, whose silence on Bishop Álvarez’s detention is deafening. Once again, I’m calling on the Biden Administration to sanction regime officials and suspend Nicaragua’s trade benefits from the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). The U.S. has the power to do so under the 2018 NICA Act and the 2021 RENACER Act, laws which Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and I wrote for situations just like this. We must use them to hold the dictatorship accountable for its crimes.

Saint Óscar Romero wrote that those who “struggle for human rights, for freedom, for dignity” do God’s work in the world. Those words should be an inspiration to all who seek justice in Nicaragua, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Bishop Álvarez and his people need our prayers, but they also need our support — and that means standing up against Ortega and Murillo.

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Senator Marco Rubio

Official Account. Follower of Christ, Husband, Father, U.S. Senator for Florida.