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For the most part, persecution against the Church in Nicaragua has fallen out of the global spotlight since January, when two bishops and a group of priests and seminarians were exiled from the Central American country.


The Nicaraguan dictatorship is not believed to have imprisoned any more priests since Bishop Rolando Álvarez, Bishop Isidoro Mora and their companions were sent to Rome six months ago.

But this silence is not necessarily an indicator that the situation has improved. 

Local observers see no great reason for hope. On the contrary, the fact that there is no news on Nicaragua is, in itself, news. It suggests that the repression against the Church has entered into a new phase - one in which Catholic leaders may privately oppose the government, but are too scared to speak up publicly.

Quiet persecution

While it has been almost half a year since the last public deportation of clergy, the Nicaraguan regime has continued to quietly make moves to limit the Church’s operations in the country. 

On May 22, the government announced the dissolution of six religious non-profits, including two Catholic institutions: the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the ACVINPROH, a humanitarian organization.

According to the government, these organizations had not fulfilled their obligations in reporting financial statements to authorities.

This is the same justification that has been used to dissolve – and seize the assets of – many religious congregations in the country, including the Missionaries of Charity, the Franciscans, the Jesuits, and at least four Catholic universities.

And while the number of religious exiles has dropped in 2024, a fair number of priests and religious are still fleeing the country due to threats against them. So far this year, 35 priests and religious have fled Nicaragua, including Álvarez, Mora, and the 17 others who were sent with them to Rome.

A report published last year by researcher Martha Molina found that a total of 224 clergy members, seminarians and religious have been forced to leave the country officially. However, local observers believe the number is higher, as many priests decide not to reveal they have gone into exile for fear of retaliation against their families. 

At least 15% of the Nicaraguan clergy have now been forced into exile. The situation is particularly dire in the diocese of Matagalpa, where that number is more than 50% of diocesan priests.

The bishops who remain in the country face constant surveillance by law enforcement. In recent pastoral visits, both Bishop René Sándigo of León and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes could be seen with police officers nearby.

Local news outlet La Prensa also reported that the families of exiled priests remain under surveillance in Nicaragua.

Many are frequently interrogated by authorities about the whereabouts of the priests, their activities abroad and if they are sending money to their families, communities and friends.

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A shift in focus

Why has the persecution of the Church moved out of the spotlight in the last six months? 

It would seem that Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega has largely achieved his goal of bullying the Catholic Church into silence.

He exiled the three bishops who were the most prominent critics of the regime: Álvarez, Mora, and Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, who exiled in 2019.

Most Nicaraguan bishops are not friendly to the regime, but after five years of widespread persecution, they have largely chosen silence over open criticism.

The same phenomenon has taken place with priests. Any priest who took an active role in the 2019 protests - or dared to criticize the regime publicly since then - has been jailed, forced into exile, or banned from returning to the country.

In fact, in the last slew of persecution in December 2023, some Matagalpa priests were imprisoned for mentioning their bishop, Rolando Álvarez, in the Eucharistic prayer during the Mass.

The priests who remain have done so largely by keeping quiet and avoiding confrontation. 

Ortega knows that completely destroying the Catholic Church in Nicaragua is not a possibility. But it seems that he has made significant progress at pushing the Church into silence and irrelevance - a sort of controlled opposition.

In addition, Ortega has exiled a significant number of diocesan officials and priests with theological studies abroad, leading many observers to think he is pushing to keep the Church quiet by draining the pool of future episcopal candidates.

Cardinal Brenes turned 75 - the typical age of episcopal retirement - a few months ago, as did Bishop Carlos Herrera of Jinotega. The Dioceses of Estelí, Matagalpa, and Siuna all have bishops in exile. That makes five dioceses with irregular episcopal situations that might need a new bishop sooner rather than later.

With major bishops and vocal priests exiled, and Catholic universities and religious congregations shut down, Ortega may feel confident that the Catholic Church is under control for now.

It seems he may be shifting his focus from religious to political opposition. 

Ortega recently fired his finance minister, Iván Acosta, who had held the post since 2012.

Moreover, he recently put his own brother, Humberto Ortega, under house arrest after he criticized the current regime. Humberto used to be the commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan army during Ortega’s first government (1979-1990).

When Nicaraguan Sheynnis Palacios won the 2023 Miss Universe contest, the Ortega dictatorship banned celebrations and exiled the director of Miss Nicaragua for allegedly trying to use Palacios’ win to stage a coup. Palacios has not returned to the country since her victory, though she denies being exiled. 

What comes next for the Church in Nicaragua remains to be seen. 

Local analysts point out that Ortega has grown increasingly erratic, and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, has taken a more prominent role in the regime. 

Ortega is already 78 years old, but does not have a clear successor. Murillo is the clearest choice, but she is 72 herself, and has a fair number of political opponents.

Facing an uncertain future, Catholic leaders in the country may opt for silence as they wait to see how the situation will unfold.

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