Who would have thought that, in the 21st century, a religious leader who has committed no crime would be thrown into a maximum-security prison by a regime that claims to be a functioning democracy?
This is precisely what has been done to Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, a Catholic diocese in Nicaragua. Imprisoned earlier this year by Daniel Ortega — one of the world’s nastiest and most opportunistic dictators — Bishop Alvarez is now in declining health after months of poor treatment during his unjust imprisonment.
Having lived for over a decade in Latin America, I can attest to the special respect previously given to faith in society there. It is well past time the global community spoke up in support of those principles and insist that Álvarez’s release occur with all due haste.
Álvarez took part in discussions with the Ortega government after its crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2018. Not surprisingly, the discussions broke down. The protests continued, and the regime turned against all church leaders who dared to challenge it. Among them was Bishop Álvarez.
The bishop was eventually placed under house arrest in August 2022 and was convicted in February on false charges of treason. His sentence of 26 years and four months in prison came down the day after 222 political prisoners were stripped of their Nicaraguan nationality and deported to the U.S. Ortega claimed at the time that Bishop Álvarez refused to get on the plane with the other deportees.
Now an investigative report by The Pillar, a Catholic newspaper, has cast doubt upon the accuracy of Ortega’s claim. It also says that “in recent months Álvarez has ‘without a doubt’ expressed his willingness to be exiled, according to several sources close to the bishop.” Nicaragua recently released 12 Catholic priests jailed on a variety of charges and sent them to Rome following an agreement reached with the Vatican, but Álvarez was not among them.
It is believed that the bishop has been held primarily in Nicaragua’s “La Modelo” prison, a maximum-security facility that is infamous for its sadistic treatment of prisoners. Responding to demands for proof that Álvarez is still alive, the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interior released new video and images of the bishop on November 30.
He was hauntingly pale and thin.
An accompanying press release from the Ortega regime asserts that “the conditions of [Álvarez’s] confinement are preferential and that the regimen of doctor’s appointments is strictly complied with as well as family visits, the sending and receiving of packages, contrary to what slanderous campaigns try to make you believe.”
U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) isn’t fooled. He and other members of Congress are urging Ortega to release Álvarez immediately. At a recent congressional hearing, they heard testimony from Nicaraguan exiles about the vicious treatment of political prisoners by the Ortega regime. Leading religious freedom and international human rights advocates also added their voices to the call for Álvarez’s release.
Kristina Hjelkrem, legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom International, highlighted the affront to religious freedom, arguing that “Bishop Álvarez has been harassed and unjustly imprisoned by the Nicaraguan government for simply fulfilling his duties as a Catholic bishop.”
And Deborah Ullmer, regional director for Latin America for the National Democratic Institute, said during the hearing that Álvarez “has become the courageous face of resistance in Nicaragua.” She pointed out that his imprisonment violates several international human rights laws and agreements and called on the U.S. to impose stricter sanctions against Nicaraguan officials and Nicaragua’s central bank.
Smith, a longtime champion for human rights and religious freedom, observed that “bishops and priests as well as worshippers have been harassed and detained” and that the international community “can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening to the people of Nicaragua, including and especially to people of faith.” He added: “Out of an abundance of concern for Bishop Álvarez’s welfare and health, let him come to the United States or to the Vatican or somewhere else, or stay right in Nicaragua, where he can again serve the people, preach the Good News of the Gospel, and care for the weakest and most vulnerable.”
Smith is not alone in expressing our country’s concern that Ortega has apparently waged war against the Catholic church. In its 2023 Annual Report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended the U.S. Department of State redesignate Nicaragua as a Country of Particular Concern for its systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
Frank Wolfe, a former Congressman and current Commissioner of USCIRF, forcefully adds that “as the international community comes together to condemn the Nicaraguan government’s unrelenting persecution of the Catholic Church and severe restrictions on religious freedom, USCIRF urges the U.S. government to continue leading efforts to hold the Ortega-Murillo regime accountable.”
And last week, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has been particularly vocal in denouncing Álvarez’s mistreatment by the Ortega regime, urged Pope Francis to call for the bishop’s immediate release. One can only pray that a response from the Holy Father on behalf of a brother bishop is imminent.
Daniel Ortega, who once masqueraded as a faithful Catholic, is betting that the world will eventually forget about Álvarez and the freedoms he is defending. It’s a bet he must not be allowed to win.
Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is director of the Conscience Project.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.