ROME – Closing itself off even more from the international community, the government of Daniel Ortega declared the papal representative to Nicaragua “persona non grata” and expelled him.

Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the apostolic nuncio to Nicaragua, was forced to leave the country following his “de-facto expulsion” and is currently in Rome, Crux has been able to confirm.

The nunciature published a short note on March 7 simply saying that the Polish prelate had “absented” from the country the previous day.

The Vatican is expected to release a statement before the end of the week to clarify the circumstances of his departure, making it clear that he was expelled by the government and not called back by the Holy See.

A turning point in the deterioration of relations between the Vatican and the Ortega regime was on November 18, 2021, when the Nicaraguan government annulled the figure of “dean of the diplomatic corps” by decree. In most countries with a Catholic majority, the papal nuncio traditionally serves as dean of the diplomatic corps.

Sommertag was removed as dean soon after he began to use the term “political prisoners,” which he had avoided during the almost three years he served as a behind-the-scenes interlocutor between the government and the families of the hundreds of prisoners.

Among those being held by the government are all the opposition candidates who had voiced an intention to run against Ortega in the presidential elections held last year. 

Sources say the the decision for the nuncio’s removal came directly from Ortega and his wife, vice-president Rosario Murillo, who have long clashed with the Catholic hierarchy, due to the bishops’ condemnation of the violent repression of a peaceful civil uprising in 2018.

Usually, when an ambassador is expelled from a country, the corresponding diplomat is also expelled. However, Nicaraguan Ambassador Eliette Ortega Sotomayor left the post in August 2021, and Ortega never replaced her, so the role is vacant.

Since the 2018 protests, Catholic churches have been attacked, including the Managua cathedral in 2020. In 2019, Managua Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez was essentially forced from his diocese at Pope Francis’s request after receiving several death threats.

Last year, the Ortegas called the bishops “coup perpetrators,” “offspring of the devil,” “foreign agents,” and accused them of preaching a false Christianity. They have dispatched police to intimidate bishops and priests, even installing a police booth across the street from the home of Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes Solorzano, the archbishop of Managua.

Sommerstang had the difficult task of walking the fine line between keeping the dialogue channels with the government open and protecting his flock: Persecution of Christians, particularly the Catholic Church, has been on the rise in Nicaragua since 2018, according to the United States’ Commission for International Religious Freedom.

When the protests broke out, the country’s bishops and Sommerstang, at Ortega’s request, attempted to mediate a national dialogue between protesters and the government, but when the initiative failed, the prelates were blamed by the regime.

During later talks, the bishops were banned from the dialogue by Ortega. However, the papal representative was allowed to stay in the role of a “witness” who was “accompanying” the dialogue.

But when the dialogue stalled once again, Sommerstang couldn’t avoid voicing his frustration and called Nicaragua a country where there are “a lot of lies,” and added that “some forces are mining the field” of the dialogue process aimed at ending the crisis.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma