The Nicaraguan dictatorship deported this month 12 priests imprisoned in the country who are now bound for the Vatican, bringing the total number of priests exiled from the country to more than 10% of its clergy.
The regime of Daniel Ortega confirmed that the priests’ Oct. 18 expulsion was part of negotiations with the Vatican, explaining in a statement that “after holding fruitful conversations with the Holy See … an agreement was reached for the movement to the Vatican of the 12 priests who, for different reasons, were prosecuted, and who traveled to Rome, Italy, this afternoon.”
There was initial speculation whether Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa was included among the deported clerics, but a government list of those expelled to Rome did not include the bishop, who has been detained by the government since August 2022.
The list of those freed includes Manuel Salvador García Rodríguez, José Leonardo Urbina Rodríguez, Jaime Iván Montesinos Sauceda, Fernando Israel Zamora Silva, Osman José Amador Guillén, Julio Ricardo Norori Jiménez, Cristóbal Reynaldo Gadea Velásquez, Álvaro José Toledo Amador, José Iván Centeno Tercero, Pastor Eugenio Rodríguez Benavidez, Yessner Cipriano Pineda Meneses y Ramón Angulo Reyes.
“The list includes priests especially from dioceses in the north of the country, which has been the region hardest hit by repression,” Israel González, a Nicaraguan journalist, told The Pillar.
“After the release of political prisoners in February, throughout 2023 the Nicaraguan prisons have been filled with priests and between the last week of August and the first week of September and then the first week of October there were raids really targeting priests, ” Gonzalez said.
While some in the country greeted the release as a gesture of goodwill by the Nicaraguan regime, others have noted that the government described it as part of a “negotiation” with the Vatican — have asked what agreements the Holy See has had to make in return.
The list of released priests includes Fr. Manuel Salvador García and Fr. José Leonardo Urbina, both of whose criminal cases have previously attracted criticism and condemnation from international human rights groups.
García was sentenced to four years in prison in June 2022 for beating a woman – who later retracted her complaint and was accused of perjury – and threatening Sandinista protesters with a machete from his parish rectory.
Urbina was sentenced to 30 years in prison in August of the same year for allegedly raping a minor.
Both García and Urbina were known for their opposition to the Sandinista regime and for their support for politically persecuted people in the country, and their trials were plagued by irregularities, according to local human rights organizations.
Since both had been accused of common crimes, rather than political offenses, they were not released in February when 222 political prisoners were exiled to the United States, including five priests.
At the time, they were the only clerics who remained detained in Nicaragua besides Bishop Alvarez, but since then the Ortega dictatorship has made concerted efforts to crack down on Catholic clergy in the country.
“Montesinos, Urbina and García are the only priests who were arrested and accused of a specific crime, while Fr. Eugenio Rodríguez and Fr. Leonardo Guevara were under police investigation without charges having been brought against them,” explained Martha Molina, a Nicaraguan lawyer and human rights activist. “All the other priests were detained without charge — Fr. Fernando Zamora spent more than 90 days in detention without charges being brought against him or any explanation for his detention being given.”
On May 20, Fr. Eugenio Rodríguez was arrested, followed by Fr. Leonardo Guevara on May 22, both from the Diocese of Estelí (of which Bishop Álvarez is also apostolic administrator) in relation to the regime’s shuttering of Caritas Estelí.
The next day, Fr. Jaime Iván Montesinos, parish priest of the San Juan Pablo II church in the Diocese of Matagalpa, was arrested and charged with “committing acts that undermine the independence, sovereignty and self-determination of the nation” — the same crime of which Bishop Álvarez's companions were accused.
In July, Fernando Zamora, chancellor of the Diocese of Siuna, was arrested, without charges filed against him. The same thing happened to Fr. Osman Amador on September 8, after a Mass presided over by Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes.
Amador was the last director of Cáritas Estelí, so it was widely presumed that his arrest was due to his involvement with the aid agency — in addition to his being one of the few voices openly critical of the Ortega dictatorship in public, both in his homilies and on social media.
On October 1, the priests Iván Centeno, Cristóbal Gadea and Julio Norori were also arrested without charges being brought against them.
In the same week, Fathers Yesnner Pineda and Álvaro Toledo were also arrested followed on October 9 by Fr. Ramón Angulo. No charges were brought against any of the clerics.
All the priests had been under house arrest at a seminary in Managua, except Urbina and García, but days before their exile they were sent to La Modelo prison, where Álvarez is being held.
The vice president and first lady of Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo, has stated that the exile of the priests was due to agreements reached between the regime and the Holy See with the mediation of “high authorities” of the Church in Nicaragua.
A spokesman for the Holy See limited himself to stating that Nicaragua “asked” the Vatican to host 12 Nicaraguan priests, without clarifying whether there had been any negotiation.
Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes told the press that “What happened was a dialogue between the Holy See and the government. It is a joy for everyone that the [priests] can now go and serve the apostolate.”
Local sources have speculated that the rapid increase in clerical arrests was a calculated attempt by the Nicaraguan government to pressure the Vatican and the local hierarchy to negotiate with the regime.
However, when the Nicaraguan regime released 222 political prisoners in February, many thought it was part of a negotiation with the United States to lighten diplomatic sanctions against Nicaragua, but this proved not to be the case.
Although a negotiation in the strict sense of the term may not have occurred, the Nicaraguan regime could be seeking to curry favor with Pope Francis, who this year has harshly criticized President Ortega, comparing his dictatorship in Nicaragua with Hitler and the communist regimes of the 20th century.
The government is believed to be seeking Vatican mediation in international negotiations to eliminate or lighten sanctions against Nicaragua, a strategy that two other left-wing dictatorships on the continent, Venezuela and Cuba, have already deployed.
“If we can talk about ‘negotiation’ we would have to say that it was a forced negotiation, because it is not convincing if the Ortega regime — which proclaims itself Christian and socialist — says it does not want to have priests in prison,” Israel Gonzalez told The Pillar.
Local sources told The Pillar that perhaps the explanation is much simpler: Ortega is seeking to destroy the Church in Nicaragua and exiling priests is less politically expensive than keeping them imprisoned.
Since the increase in persecution in 2022, both the dioceses of Estelí and Matagalpa have lost almost 20% of their clergy to exile and forced deportations — in addition to having their bishop imprisoned.
Although Nicaragua is a country with a relatively high number of vocations compared to the rest of Central America, it is not a sustainable situation. Eighty-four priests have been exiled since a series of public protests in 2019, and the number increases monthly. This figure represents more than 10% of the clergy in Nicaragua.
Hopes that the recent batch of deportations was because of a warming of relations with the Vatican were rebuffed on October 24, when the Nicaraguan regime decided to eliminate the legal status of the Order of Friars Minor in Nicaragua and Instituto San Francisco de Asís de Matagalpa, a school administered by the OFM Franciscan order.
According to the Ministry of the Interior, the decision was taken because the order was “in failure to comply with their obligations, in accordance with the laws that regulate them, hindering the control and surveillance of the General Directorate of Registration and Control of Non-Profit Organizations.”
The Franciscans join a long list of religious orders and congregations that have had their legal personality canceled and their assets seized by the Ortega regime, including the Jesuits, the Trappist nuns and the Missionaries of Charity.