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While most of the world was celebrating Christmas, the Nicaraguan government escalated its campaign against the Catholic Church in the country. In recent weeks the regime has jailed  more than 15 priests, along with a bishop, two seminarians and some lay collaborators.

A priest and a nun pray before the burned crucifix in Managua's cathedral
A priest and nun pray in the cathedral of Managua after an arson attack in 2020. Credit: Vatican News.

Since December 20, the dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega has embarked on a new wave of arrests of Catholic priests that has left the world perplexed and many, inside and outside Nicaragua, wondering what the motivation for the new wave of arrests could be.

To date, there is little available information about the whereabouts of the detainees, their condition, or the accusations against them. No official of the Nicaraguan government has issued statements on the matter.


Local journalist Manuel Obando told The Pillar that several of the arrests could be due to a recent government prohibition against mentioning the incarcerated Bishop Rolando Álvarez in Masses, even in the Eucharistic prayer, when priests are required to mention the local diocesan bishop by name.

Obando worked closely with Álvarez in his Diocese of Matagalpa, and was detained with other Álvarez collaborators until the journalist was released and exiled to the United States in February 2022, along with more than 200 Nicaraguan political prisoners.

The detainees

The recent crackdown began Dec. 19, when Bishop Isidoro Mora of Siuna, was celebrating the 99th anniversary Mass for the Diocese of Matagalpa.

In his homily, Mora mentioned that the Nicaraguan bishops were united in prayer for Bishop Álvarez, the bishop of the diocese, who has been detained since August 2022, and is sentenced to 26 years in prison for his criticism of the Nicaraguan regime.

The next day, Mora was on his way to celebrate a confirmation Mass in his own diocese, when he was intercepted and detained by the police, along with the seminarians Alester Sánez and Tony Palacios, who accompanied him at the Mass.

Before being appointed a bishop, Mora had served for 12 years as vicar general of the Matagalpa diocese, where he was ordained a priest in 2003.

The current vicar general of Matagalpa, Fr. Óscar Escoto, was also detained on Dec. 21, released the following morning and then detained again. He was taken to Managua and released, once again, on Dec, 24.

Escoto was among the priests who spent two weeks under siege in the episcopal curia of Matagalpa in August 2022 along with Bishop Álvarez. But unlike his companions, he was not taken to prison at the end of the siege.

Since then, according to local sources, Escoto had served informally as the leading authority of the Matagalpa diocese while Álvarez remains incarcerated. 

A few days after Escoto’s arrest, Fr. Jader Guido, vicar of the Matagalpa cathedral, was detained on Dec. 24, after celebrating the Fourth Sunday of Advent Mass. 

The arrest reportedly came because Guido prayed explicitly for Álvarez in the Eucharistic prayer, as required by the liturgical texts, in addition to “all the priests and religious of our diocese.”

The priest was released at midnight of that same day.

On December 26, Fr. Pablo Villafranca, from the archdiocese of Managua, was arrested. Villafranca was known for being one of the few priests in Nicaragua who still publicly called for Álvarez's freedom in his homilies.

On December 28, the crackdown continued, as several more priests were detained.

Among them was Fr. Carlos Avilés, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Managua, who was arrested as he left a meeting at the Managua curia.

That same day, the archdiocesan finance officer, Fr. Héctor Treminio, was also arrested.

Avilés and Treminio were known for being harsh critics of the Nicaraguan dictatorship.

Also on Dec. 28, Fr Fernando Calero, from the diocese of Matagalpa, was arrested after mentioning Álvarez in a Mass, along with Father Marcos Díaz Prado, from the Diocese of León.

But it was on December 29 and 30 that the bulk of the arrests of priests in Nicaragua would occur. Seven priests from the Archdiocese of Managua, two from the Diocese of León and one from the Diocese of Jinotega were detained across those two days.

Fr. Ismael Serrano, known for serving as exorcist in the Archdiocese of Managua, was arrested together with Fr. Silvio Fonseca, director of the archdiocesan family ministry.

Along with them came the arrests of Fr. Miguel Mántica, Fr. Mykel Monterrey, Fr. Jader Hernández, Fr. Gerardo Rodríguez, Fr. Raúl Zamora of the Archdiocese of Managua, Fr. Ervin López and Fr. Jaime Ramos of the Diocese of León and Fr. José Sandino of the Diocese of Jinotega.

Relatives of the priests say they fear they have been sent to El Chipote prison, an infamous prison where political prisoners are believed to face torture.  But according to activist and lawyer Martha Molina, the priests’ relatives were denied information by the prison, and referred to police stations across the country. 

Molina told The Pillar that the families of the detained priests were not being permitted to deliver medicine to their relatives, even while several of the priests suffer from chronic illnesses and one is a diabetic. 

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The bishops

Faced with this new wave of persecution, the Archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, said at the end of a December 31 Mass that he had prepared a “small message” about the situation.

Brenes did not read the message personally, but another priest of the Archdiocese did, in which he mentioned the “absence” of some priests in Nicaragua.

“I want to show you my closeness. It is time to seek together in prayer the consolation of God and, in ecclesial unity, our strength,” the message said.

“Let us ask the good God for the grace of our wisdom and that our words and actions bear witness to that patience that achieves everything and that the light of Jesus helps us all to find paths of harmony and brotherhood,” it added.

The Bishop of León, René Sándigo, did not make any statement about the detained priests of his diocese. Sándigo is known for his closeness to the Sandinista regime.

The auxiliary bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez, exiled since 2019 and currently living in Miami, said that the priests “have been kidnapped by a criminal regime, in some way [the government] have attacked and attacked their human dignity and their freedom, because they are good, holy men.” 

“If they are not in their parishes it is due to an unjust and criminal act of a regime” Báez said while he asked the priests in Nicaragua to “take care of themselves, but taking care of oneself does not mean remaining silent out of cowardice.” 

“Be careful because we are spied on, recorded, persecuted; in the neighborhoods there are people reporting. I’m not telling you to shut up.”

What is behind the new wave of persecution?

Some analysts and local media have pointed out that the wave of persecution coincided with the reestablishment of the Ministry of the Interior in Nicaragua.

Previously, the ministry that fulfilled these functions was called the Ministry of Governance, but in December a name change was announced.

The change is not coincidental. In the 80s – when Daniel Ortega governed after a bloody civil war to remove the Somoza family dictatorship from power – Ortega used the Ministry of the Interior as a means of political repression to spy on, prosecute, threaten, imprison and even murder those who opposed Sandinismo.

The return of the Ministry of the Interior has led many to believe that it is a veiled regime announcement of an increase in repression against the Church and anyone who opposes the Ortega regime.

The ramped up persecution could also stem from a desire on Ortega’s part to decrease the number of priests in Nicaragua. 

Since 2018, more than 10% of Nicaraguan clergy had been deported or exiled from the country. With around 15 other priests in prison (and many others rumored to have left the country or possibly also being detained), the number of active priests in Nicaragua continues to decline.

The arrest of another bishop means that of the 9 Nicaraguan dioceses, 3 have their head in prison (Álvarez is also apostolic administrator of Estelí), 2 are led by a bishop over 75 years of age and Cardinal Brenes will turn 75 in March. Meaning that as of March, six of the nine Nicaraguan dioceses will be either functionally without a bishop or led by one already past retirement age.

Considering that several of the detained priests held important positions in various dioceses, it could be a strategy to eliminate possible candidates critical of the regime to fill these episcopal vacancies. That would force the Vatican to leave dioceses vacant, with bishops past retirement age, or to appoint lesser-known priests with sympathy for the regime or, at least, less willing to confront the regime.

Heading into the New Year, 2024 seems set to go from bad to worse for the Church in Nicaragua.

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