Nicaraguan priest speaks out against Ortega’s authoritarian rule

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Speaking to an audience of 1,500 gathered for the IRF Summit in Washington, D.C., a Nicaraguan priest recently told his

Daniel Ortega (photo: Contrainformacion.es)

story of persecution at the hands of the brutal Ortega regime. 

Hidden from the audience behind a screen and speaking through a voice scrambler, the priest—kept anonymous for his safety and that of his family and parishioners still in Nicaragua—spoke of God’s care for him and those he cared for and of the need to stand of human rights even in the face of severe persecution. 

“I have agreed to come,” he said, “for two reasons—because I believe that there is a God who cares for us and because if we, as Christians, who believe in democracy, in freedom, in social justice, do nothing, no one else will.” 

Though thousands of nongovernmental organizations have lost their legal status due to a murky 2018 law on funding, the Catholic Church has been particularly targeted due to its outspoken criticism of the regime’s sordid human rights record and its decision to shelter student protestors in 2019. 

“The Catholic Church is the last stronghold, the last non-aligned institution left in the country after the regime has made all political parties disappear,” the priest explained. 

Targeted by the Ortega regime, conditions are only worsening for the Nicaraguan Church. 

“As a church, we are living through the worst moments in our history in Nicaragua since its arrival more than 500 years ago to the present moment,” the priest told the gathered audience. He himself was arrested, insulted, beaten, and imprisoned for months, and his family in Nicaragua is left to live with police parked outside their home, watching their every move. 

This type of surveillance is increasingly common in Nicaragua where, according to the priest, “Every Sunday, patrol cars full of police are parked in front of the country’s Catholic churches” and “the faithful who attend the Eucharist on Sundays are photographed [and] the homilies delivered by the remaining priests are being recorded.” 

This type of surveillance regime is strikingly similar to that imposed by China on its religious communities. Nicaragua maintains a close relationship with China, which it sees as an important ally in the face of increasing sanctions from the West and a struggling economy. In December 2023, China and Nicaragua announced upgraded relations, bringing the two autocracies even closer together than before. 

In July 2022, Nicaragua expelled 18 nuns from the Missionaries of Charity order, founded by Mother Theresa and active in Nicaragua since 1988. According to the BBC, the nuns were bussed under police escort to the country’s southern border and made to walk across into Costa Rica. The Missionaries of Charity were stripped of their legal status in late June, an administrative measure that laid the groundwork for their later expulsion.  

Earlier in 2022, the Ortega government expelled the Vatican’s ambassador to Nicaragua in a move that drew pointed condemnation from the church. 

The U.S. Department of State added Nicaragua to the Special Watchlist (SWL) of countries with particularly severe violations of religious freedom in 2019, a designation that continued until 2022 when it was raised to the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. The latter designation indicates increased concern about the state of religious freedom in Nicaragua and normally carries with it certain legislatively mandated consequences in the form of sanctions. 

“Catholic clergy and laity continued to experience government harassment,” said a 2022 State Department publication citing media reports, “including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies based on charges that clergy and laity said were unfounded, withholding of tax exemptions, and denial of religious services for political prisoners.” 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) similarly began including Nicaragua in its report in 2020, recommending that it be added to the SWL then and upgrading its recommendation to the CPC list in 2023. 

Arguing for its CPC recommendation in a 2023 report, USCIRF noted that “despite the high level of persecution against Catholic leaders since protests in 2018, 2022 was the first year in which the government imprisoned members of the clergy.”International Christian Concern