Nicaraguan police arrest Catholic bishop and other priests in raid


MEXICO CITY (AP) — Nicaraguan police raided the residence of a Catholic bishop critical of President Daniel Ortega’s administration on Friday, arresting him and several other priests in a dramatic escalation of tensions between the church and a government increasingly intolerant of dissent.

The pre-dawn raid came after Nicaraguan authorities accused Matagalpa Bishop Rolando Álvarez of ‘organizing violent groups’ and inciting them ‘to commit acts of hatred against the population’ .

President Daniel Ortega’s government has consistently acted against dissenting voices, last year arresting dozens of opposition leaders, including seven potential candidates to challenge him for the presidency. They were sentenced to prison this year in speedy trials closed to the public.

The congress, dominated by Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, ordered the closure of more than 1,000 non-governmental organizations, including the charity of Mother Teresa.

Early Friday, the Diocese of Matagalpa posted on social media: “#SOS #Urgente. At this moment, the national police entered the episcopal presbytery of our diocese of Matagalpa.

National police confirmed the detentions in a later statement, saying the operation was carried out to allow “the citizens and families of Matagalpa to return to normalcy”.

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“For several days, a positive communication from the Diocese of Matagalpa was expected with great patience, prudence and sense of responsibility, which never materialized,” the statement said. “With the continuation of destabilizing and provocative activities, the aforementioned public order operation has become necessary.”

He did not mention any specific charges.

Álvarez was being held in a house in Managua, where he was allowed to meet relatives and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, according to the police statement.

The others who were taken with Álvarez – they did not say who or how many – were still being processed, police said.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has condemned these detentions and called for the immediate release of those detained.

Edwin Román, a Nicaraguan priest exiled in the United States said via Twitter: “MY GOD! How scandalous they took Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, together with the priests who were with him.

Álvarez has been a key religious voice in discussions over Nicaragua’s future since 2018, when a wave of protests against Ortega’s government led to a sweeping crackdown on opponents.

“We hope there will be a series of electoral reforms, structural changes in electoral authority – free, fair and transparent elections, unconditional international observation,” Álvarez said a month after the protests broke out. “Indeed the democratization of the country.

At the time, a priest from the Diocese of Álvarez was injured in the arm by shrapnel as he tried to separate protesters and police in Matagalpa.

Álvarez has maintained such calls for democracy for the past four years, infuriating Ortega and Murillo.

Manuel Orozco, an expert on Nicaragua at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said Álvarez posed a threat as an obstacle and a symbol for Ortega.

“Nicaraguans are very loyal to the church,” he said. “In a survey I did last year, 70% of Nicaraguans said that for them, the political opinion of religious authority at the national or parochial level was important in shaping their political views.”

“The narrative (of Álvarez), it is based on the religious scenario, the biblical scenario about opposing the oppressor,” Orozco said. “And he hints not to incite violence or to call for resistance, but he says there is oppression.”

Orozco said the government is betting its pressure on the church will not bring a “proportionate response” from the international community. “And so they keep pushing the boundaries because they don’t see that unless there’s a military invasion there’s going to be nothing that can stop them.”

Friday’s arrests follow weeks of high tensions between the church and Ortega’s government, which has had a complicated relationship with Nicaragua’s predominant religion and its leaders for more than four decades.

The former Marxist guerrilla infuriated the Vatican in the 1980s but gradually forged an alliance with the church as he tried to win back the presidency in 2007 after a long spell without power. Now he again seems to see political advantage in direct confrontation.

Ortega initially invited the church to negotiate talks with protesters in 2018, but has since taken a more aggressive stance.

Days before last year’s presidential elections, which he won for a fourth consecutive term with his staunchest opponents imprisoned, he accused the bishops of drafting a policy proposal in 2018 on behalf of “terrorists, in service of the Yankees”. … These bishops are also terrorists.

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In March, Nicaragua expelled the papal nuncio, the Vatican’s top diplomat in Nicaragua.

The government had previously shut down eight radio stations and a television channel in Matagalpa province, north of Managua. Seven of the radio stations were run by the church.

The Aug. 5 announcement that Álvarez was under investigation came just hours after First Lady and Vice President Rosario Murillo slammed “sins against spirituality” and “exposing hatred.” in an apparent reference to Álvarez.

The Archdiocese of Managua had previously expressed support for Álvarez. The Latin American Catholic Bishops’ Conference denounced what it called a “siege” of priests and bishops, the expulsion of members of religious communities and the “constant harassment” aimed at the Nicaraguan people and the church.

The Vatican remained silent on the Álvarez investigation for nearly two weeks, drawing criticism from some Latin American human rights activists and intellectuals.

That silence was broken last Friday when Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz, the Vatican’s permanent observer to the Organization of American States, expressed concern over the situation and asked both sides to “seek ways to To hear”.

The Vatican again had no comment on Friday and did not immediately report the news on its internal media portal. While remaining silent, apparently in the hope of not stirring up tensions, the Vatican has in recent days published regular expressions of solidarity from Latin American bishops on its Vatican News site.

The president of the Episcopal Conference of Nicaragua did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Huge street protests across Nicaragua in 2018 called for Ortega to stand down. Ortega argued that the protests were a coup attempt carried out with foreign backing and church backing.

AP writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

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