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ROME – An exiled Nicaraguan bishop appeared to challenge Pope Francis Sunday, after the pontiff appealed for an “open and sincere dialogue” with the government of President Daniel Ortega about the recent imprisonment of another Catholic prelate.
“It is necessary to ask for freedom. We must not negotiate with the person [Ortega]. We must ask for freedom, because they are innocent,” said Bishop Silivio Báez in a Mass celebrated in Miami and broadcast through his social networks.
Báez was calling for the freedom of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, recently arrested, along with several of his companions, on charges of trying to “organize violent groups.” Prior to his house arrest at a family home in Managua, Álvarez, together with several priests, seminarians and laity, had been banned from leaving the curia of Matagalpa, the diocese he leads.
An auxiliary bishop of Managua, Báez left Nicaragua in 2019 at Pope Francis’s request following a series of death threats against him and his family. He has long been one of the loudest voices in opposing the Ortega regime, which reportedly killed over 350 protesters in 2018 and currently has 190 leaders of the opposition in prison, cut off from their families.
Álvarez, 55, bishop of the diocese of Matagalpa and apostolic administrator of the diocese of Esteli, both in the north of Nicaragua, was removed last Friday by police agents from his headquarters along with four priests and three seminarians, after having been confined for 15 days.
The National Police, headed by Francisco Diaz, in-law of Ortega, confirmed that they carried out an early morning operation in the curia of Matagalpa in which they took Álvarez and his collaborators against their will, and then transferred them to Managua.
Álvarez, the first bishop arrested since Ortega returned to power in Nicaragua in 2007, now is under “home protection” in Managua, while the others were sent to the infamous detention center El Chipote, which has been described by some former inmates as a “torture center.”
Báez’s words differ from those of Pope Francis, who spoke Sunday about Nicaragua for the first time since 2019. At the end of his noontime Angelus, the pontiff expressed “concern and pain” for the situation and called for “an open and sincere dialogue” so that “the basis for a respectful and peaceful coexistence can be found.”
“I follow closely with concern and pain the situation that has been created in Nicaragua that affects people and institutions,” Francis said, avoiding naming Álvarez.
Báez, on the other hand, was more blunt: “I want you to know that I am suffering a lot and praying a lot for you, for Nicaragua and for our church,” he said. “I especially want to greet with affection our brothers and sisters of the diocese of Matagalpa and Esteli who are being at this moment deprived of the physical presence of their pastor, and I know that for them it is a great pain.”
He also asked the Nicaraguans not to lose hope and to trust in the Lord.
The arrest of Alvarez is the latest chapter in a particularly turbulent period for the Catholic Church in Nicaragua under the Ortega regime, which has branded the hierarchy as “coup plotters” and “terrorists.”
This year, the Sandinistas expelled the papal representative, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, severing the diplomatic ties with the Holy See, as well as 18 nuns of the Missionaries of Charity order founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
It’s a steadily worsening situation that has seen priests thrown in prison, religious processions canceled by the government, and Catholics forbidden to enter their own churches. Police have also forcibly entered and raided parishes, prevented parishioners from receiving the Eucharist inside the church and besieged other priests in their churches.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma