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Catholic persecution and Nicaragua's fasting bishop

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Nicaraguans during a 2018 protest. Credit: VOA News/public domain.

When you think about countries where the Church is persecuted, China and its underground church might come to mind. Or maybe Nigeria, where violence against Christians is climbing daily. Maybe even Syria or Iraq, where Daesh nearly wiped out the Christian population a few years ago.

Hardly anyone would think of Nicaragua.

But Catholics are persecuted there, under the regime of a dictator with no love for the Catholic Church.

The small Central American country has been led by the same strongman for the last 15 years — Daniel Ortega, who also happened to be president of the country during the 1980s Sandinista regime, by which the Church was also persecuted.

When he was elected in 2007, Ortega attempted to appease the Church and gain its favor. He even married his longtime partner, Rosario Murillo, shortly before elections.

But fast forward to 2018 and things changed dramatically.

In 2010, Ortega spearheaded constitutional changes allowing him to run indefinitely as president. He ran alongside his wife as running mate in 2016.

In 2018, protests ravaged the country due to lack of free elections and a serious economic crisis. More 300 people were killed amid government repression and over a thousand political prisoners.

At the time, the Church tried to serve as a mediator, but to no avail.

In fact, efforts in that role have gained Catholic officials even more distrust from the Ortega regime, and turned the Church into a political scapegoat — The regime claims even that the Church took part in a coup attempt.

After police and paramilitary attacked the campus of a Managua university in July 2018, protestors - mostly students - took refuge in a nearby church, which was besieged by the police and paramilitary for two days and left two dead.

The remaining students could leave only when bishops, along with delegates from international aid organizations, escorted the demonstrators to the Cathedral of Managua.

That siege was only the beginning of tensions and persecution that now seem to be reaching their highest point since the turbulent 80s.

The last few months have seen a jailed priest and many more exiled, a Catholic TV station shuttered by the government, and numerous attacks on churches, priests, and bishops in Nicaragua.

The persecution has taken on a spiritual dimension for Catholics in Nicaragua.

From a fasting bishop and the prayerful attitude of many towards persecution, to a parish in Miami that has become the spiritual center of exiled nicas, Catholics in Nicaragua - and expats living abroad - have aimed to take the Church’s persecution to prayer.

The fasting bishop

Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa (and apostolic administrator of Estelí) has been one of the soundest voices within the Church against the abuses and human rights violations of the Nicaraguan regime.

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Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa. Credit: Bishops’ conference of Nicaragua. CC BY SA 3.0

Álvarez leads a diocese that combines the city of Matagalpa and almost 400 surrounding rural communities. The bishop has become famous for crossing rivers in small boats, and going into the hills by horse or on foot, all to bring the Church and the sacraments to far-flung communities.

The bishop has defended farmers who opposed mining in their surroundings, victims of police abuse, such as students and laborers and was the main mediator of the Bishops’ Conference during the negotiations of 2018. His critical stance against the regime saw him vetoed from a second negotiation in 2019.

The bishop’s stance also started a wave of persecution against his own ministry, and against his collaborators.

The cathedral of Matagalpa has been attacked several times, professors of the San Luis Gonzaga school in the diocese were detained by the regime in 2019, and some teachers paid by the Ministry of Education have had their salaries suspended, according to the director of the school, Fr. Uriel Vallejos, who has said that he is constantly watched by police officers and was almost run over by a truck driven by a supporter of the regime.

In April of this year, a woman who served at the cathedral as an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion was beaten by Ortega sympathizers.

“Don’t do with the faithful what you want to do with me. Do with me what you want, but not with the faithful, not with God’s holy people,” Álvarez said after that attack.

Police listened.

On May 19, the bishop traveled to Managua, because he said police had been persecuting him in his diocese, even entering into the home of a niece he was visiting.

In the country’s capital city, Álvarez stayed in a local church while the Sandinista police surveilled him.

Soon after, Álvarez made a decision.

He said it was time to fast.

“I’ve decided to begin fasting with water and serum indefinitely, until the National Police, through the president or vice president of the bishops’ conference, guarantee my family privacy,” he said in a YouTube video.

Álvarez has invited Catholics to join the fast.

“I ask the Holy Spirit to illuminate them and the faithful holy people of God of the dioceses of Matagalpa and Estelí, and all who want to join me in this indefinite fast that from tomorrow, to go to the parishes of the two dioceses I’m pastoring, to adore the Holy Sacrament, to sing, to worship the Lord and to fast for the time you deem convenient.”

“Hold vigils united to me, your servant (...) I will be in prayer, I will be before the Holy Sacrament, I will be celebrating the Eucharist, and elevating my prayers to the Lord so this difficult and cruel situation of harassment may end,” he concluded.

Álvarez said his fasting was “not a hunger strike, but an act under the light of the Gospel, an act of salvation. It’s not a political matter, but of faith.”

The regime's response came quickly. Just a day after Álvarez’s announcement, Claro - the largest cable TV provider in the country - announced that the country’s telecommunications commission had ordered it to stop transmitting the “Canal Católico,” a TV channel of the bishops’ conference. The channel is led, of course, by Bishop Álvarez.

‘I’ve been given parish arrest’

Father Harving Padilla is one of the most critical voices of the Nicaraguan regime within the Church. The parish priest of the San Juan Bautista parish in the diocese of Masaya spent over two weeks completely locked up within his Church, claiming he was under “parish arrest” and denounced receiving death threats.

Fr. Harving Padilla. Courtesy photo.

The police surrounded the church for days and did not allow anyone in or out. Power and running water were constantly cut.

Padilla could only leave after nine days of “parish arrest” thanks to the intervention of members of the diocesan curia and the Archdiocese of Managua, who allegedly took him to safety in Managua’s seminary.

But the priest has not made any public appearances since.

The church of the Nicaraguan exile

Nicaragua's political and religious persecution has had a quite predictable effect: exile.

Thousands of Nicaraguans have fled the country in the past few years due to political persecution and the dire economic conditions of the country. According to UNHCR, by 2020, 100,000 people had fled the country. However, only in 2021 and 2022, over 160,000 Nicaraguans arrived in the U.S., according to the CBP.

Many of them have Miami as their final destination because it already had a large nica community that now surpasses 120,000 people. And many of them know which is the first place they will go to after they arrive: Saint Agatha Church, in Miami, which has become the spiritual heart of the Nicaraguan exile in the U.S.

Hundreds of Nicaraguans gather in the Church every Sunday  –while a few thousands do so by streaming– to listen to the homilies of Bishop Silvio Báez.

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Bishop Silvio Baez. Wikimedia, CC BY SA 4.0

A Carmelite, Báez was one of the most recognizable faces of the 2018 protests.

As auxiliary bishop of Managua he constantly denounced the human rights abuses in the country, such as the Mother’s Day massacre, in which over 15 people were shot dead and 200 wounded in different protests across Nicaragua on Mother’s Day in 2018.

The bishop had to flee the country at Rome’s request after receiving credible death threats. He relocated to Miami.

“The faith in the God that is love prevents us from exercising power in a totalitarian way,” he said in his homily for Trinity Sunday.

“We do not seek to impose a system of a single thought; thinking different is not a crime. When we believe that God is a communion of love, we fight to implement the bases of a culture of communion, of encounter, of tolerance, built by respecting everyone, not a culture of contrast and confrontation that seeks to destroy the other,” he added.

The parish is also home to Fr. Edwin Román, who had to flee the country for security reasons in 2019 after being threatened by the First Lady and Vice President, Rosario Murillo.

“You feel like a part of your land has been taken from you. I understand our brothers arriving here. It is sad. Knowing you’ve left your family, your loved ones. I have parishioners who tell me to stay here even if they need me back home,” Román said in an interview shortly after being exiled.

And it is easy to understand why the parish became the unofficial home to nicas in exile: Its pastor, Fr. Marcos Somarriba fled the country amid the Sandinista revolution in 1980 when he was only 16 years old and turned the Church into a spiritual home for Nicaraguans who come for spiritual consolation and also practical advice—because Fr. Somarriba has established a free migration advisory service in the parish.

What will come next for the Church in Nicaragua?

Persecution is unlikely to diminish.

On June 24, Fr. Manuel García was condemned to two years in prison for “threatening” five people attempting to break into his church with a machete. In a video, García is seen visibly upset with a machete in hand in the backyard of his parish while people on the other side insult him and threaten him with breaking in.

The incident occurred after García was accused of hitting a woman in an altercation. The woman was afterward placed under arrest for providing false testimony.

This is the first case of a priest facing prison in Nicaragua since the Sandinista revolution in the 80s. Moreover, the Nuncio, Waldemar Sommertag was asked to leave the country in March without further explanation, which likely means the government burned all bridges with the Church in Nicaragua.

But Catholics in Nicaragua and in exile remain strong and understand the spiritual dimension of the persecution they suffer.

"With Him, no night is forever, nor the night of sin, failure, or fear. Neither the nights of our people will last forever," Bishop Báez said in his homily of Resurrection Sunday this April.

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