Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega speaks during a meeting in Managua Nicaragua Nov. 8, 2018. CNS photo/Jorge Cabrera, Reuters

Nicaragua expels a dozen priests, sends them to the Vatican, Ortega regime says

By  David Agren, OSV News
  • October 19, 2023

BUENOS AIRES -- Nicaragua has expelled a dozen priests held as political prisoners as the increasingly tyrannical regime continues sending clergy into exile and cracking down on the Catholic Church.

The 12 priests boarded a flight for Rome Oct. 18 after an agreement for their release was reached between Nicaragua and the Vatican, according to a statement from the Nicaraguan government. The priests "will be received by the Vatican Secretary of State," according to the statement, which called the process "an effort to preserve peace and support the Catholic community."

Imprisoned Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who is serving a 26-year sentence for conspiracy and spreading false information -- after a trial rife with irregularities earlier this year -- was not among the churchmen removed from the Central American country. Bishop Álvarez has repeatedly refused to leave Nicaragua. His condition is unknown.

"I can confirm that the Holy See has been asked to receive 12 priests from Nicaragua who were recently released from prison. The Holy See has agreed; they will be received by an official of the Secretariat of State," Matteo Bruni, the Vatican's spokesman said Oct. 19.

The agreement, announced the evening of Oct. 18, was "reached with the intercession of high authorities of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua and in the Vatican," according to the Nicaraguan statement.

It also followed a wave of repression against Catholic clergy -- especially in the Diocese of Estelí, where Bishop Álvarez is apostolic administrator.

Several priests were detained by police and paramilitary during the first nine days of October, with most taken from their parishes or parish residences by police and paramilitaries.

The government statement identified the recently detained priests being exiled as Fathers Julio Ricardo Norori Jiménez, Cristóbal Reynaldo Gadea Velásquez, Álvaro José Toledo Amador, José Iván Centeno Tercero, Pastor Eugenio Rodriguez Benavidez, Yessner Cipriano Pineda Meneses and Ramón Angulo Reyes.

The priests were held under house arrest in a Managua seminary, according to independent Nicaraguan media, but were transferred to the notorious El Chipote prison Oct. 15. Human rights defenders have condemned the deplorable treatment of political prisoners in El Chipote and documented inmates suffering torture and malnutrition.

The exiled priests included Father Manuel Salvador García Rodríguez, who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2022 for supposedly threatening five people with a weapon, according to independent news organization, Confidencial.

Also exiled were Father José Leonardo Urbina Rodríguez, who was arrested on supposed child abuse charges in 2022; Father Jaime Iván Montesinos Sauceda, who was detained in May on accusations of undermining national sovereignty; and Father Fernando Israel Zamora Silva, detained in June after attending a Mass celebrated by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua.

Father Osman José Amador Guillen, a former director of Caritas in the Diocese of Estelí, who was taken by riot police from the Estelí cathedral in September, according to Nicaraguan news organization La Prensa, and Father Eugenio Rodríguez Benavides, who was taken for questioning on the operations of Caritas in the Diocese of Estelí, were among the priests forced to leave the country, too. (The Caritas chapter was closed by government order in March 2023).

Nicaragua had previously suspended relations with the Vatican in March 2022 and had previously expelled the then-apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag. The Vatican subsequently closed its embassy in March.

Pope Francis has described the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, as a "gross dictatorship" and compared it with Nazi regime, but also called for continued dialogue.

The regime has increasingly turned totalitarian as it has suppressed the spaces for organized civil society and silenced all dissenting voices in the religious, business, media and political arenas -- while also closing church-run universities and charitable projects and revoking the registrations of some 3,500 nongovernmental organizations.

It also has chosen to banish priests and political dissidents from the country, sending them into exile then stripping them of their citizenship.

The most recent exile of clergy "demonstrates that none of the crimes that were attributed to the priests are real, they were all invented," Martha Molina, an exiled Nicaraguan lawyer who tracks church repression, said in a thread on X, the site formerly known as Twitter.

"The dictatorship is demonstrating that what it wants is to drown and disappear the Catholic church along with its members," she added. "This displacement does not mean a ceasing of hostilities. The aggressions will continue and possible imprisonment, too."

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