Monsignor Rolando Álvarez

Nicaragua: the sacrifice of freedom

The dictatorship, the persecuted Church, violence against civilians. But also a faith that withstands the brunt of injustice. The story of Martha and Sara, Nicaraguan exiles.
Maria Acqua Simi

In Nicaragua, there has been a violent crackdown on dissent, ordered by the regime led by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Rosaria Murillo, who serves as vice president. Ortega has led the country (with several interruptions) since 1979, when he came to power after overthrowing dictator Anastasio Somoza with the victory on the Sandinista Front. Only the dream of a free, prosperous and independent Nicaragua has never been fulfilled. For years now, this Central American state has slipped into a spiral of corruption and violence and is, after Haiti and Honduras, the poorest country in Latin America. The media and NGOs have been censored and shut down, opponents killed, imprisoned or exiled after being stripped of their nationality. Even the Catholic Church has come into the spotlight.

The presidential couple, re-elected in 2021 in dubious elections (all opponents had been jailed before the vote), accuse priests and bishops of supporting the civil opposition, which already took to the streets in 2018 to peacefully protest a controversial welfare reform. The army's suppression of the uprising at the time was brutal: 355 died, many of them students. The Nicaraguan Bishops' Conference immediately offered itself as a mediator in the national dialogue between the government and civil society, to no avail. Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, bishop of Matagalpa, sat at the negotiation table. The photo of his first arrest travelled around the world.... Today no one knows in which prison he is: he was sentenced to 26 years and 4 months without trial. His story is that of thousands of Nicaraguan citizens.

We talked about all this with two women, human rights activist and sociologist Sara Henriquez and Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, a lawyer and Nicaraguan university professor. Both are in exile abroad. Both have been forced to separate from their respective families. "My mother died last winter, I could not even say goodbye to her. I have not been able to return to Nicaragua for four years because I would be immediately arrested. My husband now works in another country, my daughter in another and me in yet another," says Sara, one of the first to report the severity of the situation abroad. "I only hope that God will allow me to re-embrace my two children, Daniela and Samuel," Martha echoes her.

Two different women. One says she does not identify with any religion, the other is a practicing Catholic. Yet they are united by one thing: a desire for freedom for their people and for all of Nicaragua.

"Loving freedom involves sacrifice. Speaking the truth involves sacrifice. Do you know why power today persecutes the Catholic Church? Because priests stand with the people, they were not afraid to tell the people that it was not right to accept abuse, they reminded everyone that freedom is more precious than anything else in the world. The dictatorship hates the Church because it is free, and those who are free cannot be silent. The paradoxical thing is that Ortega in his speeches often cites the Christian model to justify his political choices," Sara says. Her exile was not voluntary; it was forced. "During the protests our house was stoned. My husband told me to call the police. I took a deep breath. Those throwing the stones were the people whom the police were protecting and encouraging: who could we possibly have called? "

Martha, on the other hand, saw the university where she taught, the John Paul II University (which belongs to the Nicaraguan bishops) and the Inmaculada Concepción Catholic University of the Managua Archdiocese close. "The UCA, founded by Jesuits, has also been heavily sanctioned. It is terrible because it trains critical thinking and many of its professors and students were in the front row in the demonstrations against Ortega," the lawyer continues. "The seminaries are emptying out because their accounts were suddenly closed." So students have had to abandon their vocational path to return to their families. Assuming they still have families. There are thousands of civilians forced into exile or hiding, and this has often created divisions in family units. Ortega's repressive machine grinds, and grinds hard.”

"More than three thousand NGOs have been closed and deprived of their legal status, even entities such as Caritas or the Sisters of Mother Teresa of Calcutta have been forced to shut down their activities. It was once again our people who lost out, because those realities were helping the people in key areas such as education, health and development."
They say the government narrative accuses the Church of being anti-democratic and dictatorial and of attempting a coup. "This is of course false. The only thing it is asking for is that the rights of all the people be respected, in a peaceful way. Instead, the regime continues to murder unarmed civilians." Martha's words are harsh. Her voice cracks as she recalls the many priest friends who have been imprisoned, killed, disappeared, exiled, or constantly guarded. Eighty priests forced into exile, banished or expelled from the country, among them Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag and Bishop Silvio Jose Baez. "We are seeing everything: the desecration of sacred places, confiscations, expulsions. A priest was attacked with acid during Mass."

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"Those who reamin are monitored 24 hours a day by the regime's police, during masses or homilies it is forbidden to mention Bishop Álvarez and his abduction. We have not heard from him since March, we fear for his life." In addition to the police – whose ranks have been filled by a thousand former detainees arbitrarily released by the president –paramilitaries and some members of the so-called "city power council" are also roaming the city streets today. They are all ready to denounce even the smallest gesture, such as displaying a Nicaraguan flag. Even social media is monitored, so fear grips civil society.

In the face of so much pain, you ask yourself if you should give up, give in to fear, and leave everything behind. "Of course we are afraid. The dictatorship is not treating us with silken gloves. It is taking everything away from us. I miss my family, I miss my job, I miss Mass on Sundays, and I miss all those people's activities that no longer exist in Nicaragua today because they are forbidden. If you say a rosary, sing the national anthem or organize a religious procession you risk jail time. There is so much pain but I surrender myself into the hands of Christ, because He also suffered, had fear and doubts like us. I am in contact every day with the priests who have stayed in the country and the thing they repeat most often is that the people entrusted to them are worth staying for. They know the risks, they know that they can die or disappear in the regime's prisons, but they also know that their mission is infinitely greater: to witness to the beauty, and justice, that we have discovered with Christianity. When discouragement grips us, we pray. We must ask to have faith and hope.”

Sara also asks. "I want my life to have meaning and I find it day after day by helping my oppressed people. I am 59 years old, I cannot go back to Nicaragua, I lost my job and I am far away from the people I love. But I do not stop fighting for others and resisting the regime by trying to let everyone know what is going on. The dictatorship will end one day. Then we will finally be able to return to our homes, with freedom."