ROME – With several churchmen behind bars for their opposition to Nicaragua’s government, and a bishop whose trial opens just days from now also in detention, Europe’s bishops have called for their immediate release and have pledged to act on their behalf.

In a letter earlier this week, Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg and President of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), voiced his support for the Nicaraguan bishops amid the ongoing detention of priests and bishops in the country.

Hollerich’s letter, addressed to Bishop Carlos Enrique Herrera Gutiérrez of Jinotega, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Nicaragua, said, “We are following with sadness and concern the situation in Nicaragua, and the persecution to which our Church and some of its members in that country are being subjected to in recent times.”

Specifically, he mentioned the case of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, who has been under house arrest since last August and was recently transferred to a prison facility, as well as a handful of priests and laity also facing legal threats from the regime of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife and the country’s current vice president.

In his statement, Hollerich said that recent events, “including the closure of Catholic radio stations, the police blocking access to churches and other serious acts that disturb religious freedom and just social order, show the worsening of a situation that began years ago.”

“In the midst of such adverse circumstances, the testimonies of commitment to our faith in the Gospel and the common social good of our beloved church in Nicaragua are admirable and do not go unnoticed,” he said, saying that faithfulness to the Gospel and to the good of one’s neighbor is “a living example and model to follow in so many other situations of persecution that, unfortunately, are multiplying in various parts of the world.”

“We join the voice that cries out for the injustice to which our brothers in Nicaragua are being subjected and we demand their immediate release,” Hollerich said.

For years, the church in Nicaragua has faced increased harassment and persecution from the Ortega-Murillo regime, largely over its opposition to the increasingly authoritarian rule of Ortega, who has stayed in power uninterrupted since 2007, having had most of his rivals for the presidency jailed.

Things escalated last year when the government expelled the Vatican’s ambassador to Nicaragua, Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, as well as 18 members of the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa.

Seven priests and two diocesan collaborators from Matagalpa have also been detained, and nine Catholic radio stations have been closed. The government has also withdrawn three Catholic channels from television subscriptions and it has blocked processions and pilgrimages throughout the country.

Since August, the bishop of Matagalpa, Rolando Álvarez, has been detained and is under criminal prosecution on charges of conspiracy against national integrity, and of disseminating false news.

Last month, the Nicaraguan government sentenced the entire team of people present with Álvarez at the time of his arrest, including four priests, two seminarians, and a cameraman, on charges of “treason against the homeland” and propagating fake news.

According to Nicaraguan lawyer and researcher Martha Patricia Molina, cited in local media, since November 2018 the Catholic Church in the country has endured nearly 400 attacks from the Ortega regime, ranging from beatings, to imprisonment, defamation, exile and threats.

On Tuesday a group of civil lawyers representing five priests facing charges in Nicaragua announced that the clergymen had each been sentenced to 10 years in prison for “conspiracy” charges against the government.

Last Tuesday, Jan. 31, Álvarez’s trial was bumped up from March 28 to Feb. 15, with El Pais reporting that the prelate was offered the chance to choose between exile and jail time, but Álvarez refused to abandon his country.

According to the Spanish newspaper El Pais, Álvarez offered to do the time for the others, saying, “let them go free, I will pay their sentence.” Álvarez’s family has reportedly not seen him since he was arrested in August.

Álvarez, who has been under house arrest since August, was recently transferred to the National Penitentiary System, where he was reportedly supposed to board a plane along with the over 200 other political prisoners whose release Ortega authorized, and who were deported to the United States. However, Álvarez reportedly refused to leave the country and is behind bars awaiting his trial.

Hollerich pledged that COMECE will do “everything in our power before the European Institutions for your release and to promote freedom, the rule of law, justice, and democracy in your beloved country.”

He closed the letter asking that the patroness of Nicaragua, the Immaculate Conception of El Viejo, would intercede “for her church and the Nicaraguan people, so that they may be guided along the path of peace and the common good.”

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