A government crackdown on Catholics in Nicaragua escalated Friday evening, when the country’s national police announced an investigation into Bishop Rolando Álvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa.
The bishop, one of the most outspoken Catholic critics of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, has been detained since Thursday afternoon at the diocesan chancery, as police forces allege that he has incited anti-government violence.
Multiple reports say the bishop and his detained companions have spent much of their detainment in song and prayer in the chancery’s chapel, and the bishop has livestreamed preaching, prayer, and song while detained.
“Under the auspices of the high authorities of the Catholic Church, and taking advantage of their status as religious leaders, the Diocese of Matagalpa headed by Bishop Rolando José Álvarez Lagos, is using media and social networks to organize violent groups, inciting them to execute acts of hatred against the population (...) with the purpose of destabilizing the State of Nicaragua and attacking the constitutional authorities,” an Aug. 5 statement declared.
“The National Police, as the competent authority to guarantee peace and citizen security, have established protection measures for the population, so that these events do not happen again. Likewise, it has initiated an investigation process, with the purpose of determining the criminal responsibility of the persons involved in the commission of these criminal acts, of which the Public Prosecutor's Office and the Judiciary have been informed.”
The statement added that the people under investigation would not be permitted to leave their homes, but police have not issued any formal arrest order.
Sources acquainted with the Ortega regime and political prisoners in Nicaragua told The Pillar Friday that investigation announcements like the one issued about Álvarez generally precede the suspect’s arrest.
The Aug. 5 statement would seem to explain why police prevented Bishop Álvarez Thursday afternoon from leaving a diocesan property that contains both the bishop’s residence and the diocesan chancery offices.
The bishop had scheduled a Mass and Holy Hour in his diocesan cathedral, but police forces would not permit him to attend.
Since Thursday afternoon, Álvarez has been subject to a de facto house arrest on the diocesan campus, along with six priests and six laypeople. The bishop is expected to remain on the property indefinitely, unless he is taken into police custody.
Tension between Catholic leaders and the Ortega regime escalated on Monday, when the Nicaraguan Institute of Telecommunications and Mail ordered the closure of 10 radio stations owned by the Diocese of Matagalpa, including one that operated from the Divine Mercy parish in the city of Sébaco. The stations had been seen among some in the Ortega administration as influential opposition voices.
When Father Uriel Vallejos refused to allow government officials to take the radio equipment from the parish, a 48-hour siege began.
Vallejos was not allowed to leave the parish rectory, power was cut, and the priest – along with five parishioners– were stuck in the rectory, without access to the kitchen.
The Pillar spoke with Vallejos on Wednesday – the priest said he and his parishioners were surviving with bread and water and a small battery that allowed them to barely charge their phones and power a fan.
When the siege started Monday evening, Vallejos called his parishioners and Matagalpa’s Catholics to protect the church. When local Catholics began protesting outside of the parish church, police responded violently, according to witnesses and local media.
A parish lector lost an eye after he was shot with a rubber bullet by police, and two young parishioners were detained.
Vallejos was permitted to leave his parish Wednesday night, escorted by at least 12 other priests and a group of police officers – but local media reported that the siege had come to an end only on Thursday afternoon.
On Thursday morning, activists reported that the police had closed access to the diocesan curia in Matagalpa.
In protest, Bishop Álvarez processed with a monstrance containing the Eucharist on nearby streets, conferring benediction upon local lay people and a few diocesan clerics. The bishop announced that he would offer a Mass that afternoon.
Bishop Álvarez was allowed to access the curial buildings on Thursday afternoon, and the conflict seemed to have ended.
But the bishop was not allowed to leave the building for Mass, and has remained detained on the diocesan campus since Thursday afternoon.
Álvarez denounced on social media that six anti-riot police officers blocked the exit.
“I wanted to celebrate the Holy Mass and the Holy Hour in the Cathedral, but superior authorities have not given permission [to withdraw the officers]. Six priests and six laypeople are here confined in the episcopal curia. We will stay here, without disrespecting the police,” Bishop Álvarez said in a video.
Álvarez was threatened with arrest Thursday afternoon by Nicaragua’s vice president, who is also the country’s first lady, as Rosario Murillo accused priests of manipulating sacred symbols and called Álvarez “a ridiculous jester” and a “manipulator.”
“There are images that are so absurd, that reflect a manipulation of symbols that should be sacred for all, images that seem to come from evil spirits that confirm everything we have denounced,” the vice president said.
Referring to Álvarez, Murillo added that “There are still some ridiculous jesters that do not have moral stature (...) and think they can occupy places of authority they do not deserve.”
She also accused Álvarez of “crimes against spirituality.”
Later on Thursday, Bishop Álvarez asked police officers to allow him to celebrate Mass in the cathedral.
“I politely ask the police in the name of God, to allow us to celebrate the Eucharist, to allow us to worship Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and leave the door of my house, the door of the Curia, and allow the faithful people of God coming to worship their Lord,” he said.
“They have two whole blocks under custody. Why? This is not a combat foxhole. We are not plotting here. If they want to come into my house, come, I will receive you all (...) we want to be left in peace!” he added.
After almost 24 hours in the curial building, Bishop Álvarez published a video on social media along with some of the priests trapped with him saying that “they have joy in their hearts, inner strength, and peace in their lives.”
He added that he would stay there with his companions praying until “authorities allow us to leave ... we’ll see how long our food lasts.”
On Friday, the bishop celebrated Mass in the chancery chapel, after which he blessed the police officers blocking the building’s exit.
"It seems that sometimes evil reigns," Álvarez said during the Mass, which was transmitted through the diocesan Facebook account.
“Although it seems that the road looks dark and gloomy, God is the king of the universe, and everything that the Lord allows, as St. Paul says, happens for the good of those who love the Lord.”
“Christ is not a fashion. Everything ends, but God is eternal, God remains, Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you, All things are passing away: God never changes,” he said, quoting a well-known prayer of Saint Theresa of Ávila.
“The gates of Hell shall not prevail against the Church, we might endure crises, moments of pain, suffering, affliction, darkness, valleys of tears, yes! But the Church has never been defeated by the powers of Hell, she has never been annihilated because, even though we, sinners, are part of it, the Church is supernatural,” Bishop Álvarez added.
After finishing the Mass, the bishop read a letter to the priests of Matagalpa and Estelí - a neighboring diocese for which he is apostolic administrator.
“Priests of the Lord, I know that heavy is the burden, that it is a lot of weight for our shoulders, but the Lord already said it: my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”