ROSARIO, Argentina – As part of an ongoing effort to silence voices of dissent in the country, Nicaragua’s government has announced that it’s investigating a Catholic bishop for “crimes against spirituality.”

In a statement released Friday evening, the national police service said it was opening a “criminal investigation” against Bishop Rolando Alvarez of the Diocese of Matagalpa, claiming the prelate was inciting violence.

On Thursday, the police practically put the bishop under house arrest. Officials barred him, as well as six other priests and six laity, from leaving the curia house as they were headed to the nearby cathedral, where Alvarez was set to say Mass.

Over 150 opposition leaders in Nicaragua are currently in prison at the direct order of President Daniel Ortega.

According to the communiqué, Alvarez and company, “taking advantage of their status as religious leaders, using the media and social networks, are attempting to organize violent groups, inciting them to carry out acts of hatred against the population, provoking an atmosphere of anxiety and disorder, disrupting the peace and harmony of the community, with the purpose of destabilizing the State of Nicaragua and attacking the constitutional authorities.”

The national police, “as the competent authority to guarantee peace and citizen security,” said the statement, has established “measures to protect the population, so that these events do not happen again.”

Likewise, an investigation process has been initiated in order to determine the criminal responsibility of the persons involved.

Many observers took the statement as a sign that the government of Ortega and his wife, Vice Pesident Rosaio Murillo, are preparing to arrest Alvarez, as they have with several Catholic priests in recent months.

Murillo said on Friday afternoon that Alvarez had committed “sins against spirituality.”

“To flaunt impunity is a crime, especially when what is provoked is discord [and] debauchery,” said the vice president.

Videos widely available on social media, including a Facebook live transmitted Thursday, show several police units arriving at the curia in Matagalpa and blocking the exit of Alvarez and his companions as they were beginning their walk to the cathedral.

“I tried to leave for the cathedral for a holy hour and to say Mass, but evidently, the superior authorities didn’t allow us to leave,” Alvarez said in a video transmitted live. “They have us locked in here, and we will stay here, locked, without disrespecting the police, who are our brothers. They, too, have their families.”

Alvarez was cornered in the curia, where he had arrived earlier despite an attempt by the police to block his way.

Police should not carry out “these harassments, these controls,” protested the bishop. During an improvised Mass that he transmitted through social networks, Alvarez demanded that the Ortega government respect religious freedom.

“I am going to wait for them to allow me to leave. I will keep you informed. Blessings to all,” he said in the video, as those inside the curia closed an electric gate facing the street.

Earlier in the day, Alvarez had asked the national police to let him officiate at a Mass inside a parish that has been besieged by agents of the security forces since Wednesday but was refused. When he attempted to go to the cathedral instead, he wasn’t allowed to leave.

In response, Alvarez knelt on a sidewalk by the curia and imparted a blessing with the Blessed Sacrament which had been handed to him by a collaborator, as a video published in the diocesan Facebook page shows.

The prelate walked among the officers, praying, singing and asking for the intimidation to stop. He accused the police of not allowing free movement, freedom of expression and religious freedom, in addition to creating anxiety and shaking the “spirits and the very simple faith of our faithful people.”

For about an hour Alvarez prayed and encouraged worshipers outside the curia, although the police set up a barrier to prevent more people from approaching.

“We will not fall into provocations, but neither will we remain without worshipping the Lord and praying together with God’s faithful people,” Alvarez said. If necessary, they will celebrate the Eucharist and adore the Blessed Sacrament in the street, because Jesus Christ “is the Lord of Nicaragua,” he said.

“Let them let us celebrate our Eucharist freely, let them not continue with this. We do not do them any harm. If we do not do anything to them, why do they want to besiege us, what is going to happen from now on, what is going to happen with the curia of Matagalpa?” he said.

“We want to be left in peace!” cried the prelate, who said he did not know why the police went “to these extremes.”

Even though the government of Ortega has been able to close virtually all Catholic media outlets – TV stations, radios and newspapers – in recent months, it has yet to be able to block Facebook and YouTube, where Alvarez live streamed his Mass Friday.

“We continue to show the world that, thanks to the Holy Spirit, we are men of action, brotherhood, freedom and peace,” he said in his homily.

“We are a church that believes in hope, in love and in the strength that God gives us,” he said. “Therefore, once again, we call on you to keep hope alive, to remain strong in love and to live in the freedom of the children of God, knowing that the Lord will restore Nicaragua.”

Alvarez also said that the 12 who are being held “are willing, from our poor and limited strength, to carry our cross, to renounce ourselves.”

The de facto house arrest came the same week the government ordered the closure of six Catholic radio stations, a measure condemned by the European Union on Wednesday.

In a statement, the EU said that the Aug. 1 closure was “arbitrary” and that it constituted yet another “violation of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief.”

Relations between the Sandinistas and the Catholic Church have been marked by friction and distrust in the last 43 years.

Ortega has branded the Nicaraguan bishops as “terrorists” because, at his request, they acted as mediators of a national dialogue seeking a peaceful solution to the crisis the country has been experiencing since April 2018.

Several churches gave refuge to demonstrators who were injured or who fled the repression of the 2018 protests, which left 355 dead, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Ortega and Murillo claimed the churches were used as “barracks” since the bishops were “accomplices of a failed coup d’etat.”

Last March, the Vatican was informed that the Government of Nicaragua had declared the papal representative in the country, Polish Archbishop Waldemar Sommer, persona non grata, banishing him from the country. Since then, there have been no formal relations between the Holy See and Ortega, who recalled his own ambassador to the Vatican last year.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma