MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua ’s government said Sunday it has proposed suspending relations with the Vatican days after Pope Francis reportedly compared President Daniel Ortega’s administration to a communist or Nazi dictatorship amid a crackdown on the Catholic Church in the Central American country.
Relations between the church and the Nicaraguan government have been deteriorating since 2018, when authorities violently repressed antigovernment protests. Some Catholic leaders gave protesters shelter in their churches and the church later tried to act as a mediator between the regime and the opposition.
Ortega branded Catholic figures he saw as sympathetic to the opposition as “terrorists” who had backed efforts to overthrow him.
Dozens of religious figures were arrested or fled the country. Two congregations of nuns – including from the Missionaries of Charity order founded by Mother Teresa – were expelled last year, and prominent Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison last month after he refused to board an airplane that would have flown him to exile in the United States. He was also stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship.
Pope Francis had remained largely silent on the issue, apparently not wanting to inflame tensions, but in a March 10 interview with Argentine media outlet Infobae he called Ortega’s government a “rude dictatorship” led by an “unbalanced” president.
In Nicaragua “we have a bishop in prison, a very serious and capable man, who wanted to give his testimony and did not accept exile,” Francis said, referring to Álvarez. “It is something from outside of what we are living, as if it were a communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitlerian one in 1935.”
Amid rumors that Nicaragua’s government had broken off ties with the Vatican following the comments, its foreign ministry released a statement Sunday saying: “a suspension of relations between the Republic of Nicaragua and the Vatican State has been proposed.”
Vatican sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because there has not been any official announcement, said Sunday evening there was a request, from Nicaragua, to close each side’s diplomatic missions.
A human rights organization, Nicaragua Nunca Más, has estimated that more than 50 religious leaders have fled since 2018, when a social security reform triggered massive protests. Other church personnel — including priests, seminarians and lay staff members, were among the 222 Nicaraguans released from detention and forcibly expelled to the United States on Feb. 9.
Nicaragua Nunca Más and CSW, a British-based organization that advocates for religious freedom around the world, have gathered testimonies from dozens of people who have described harassment, threats, physical violence and arbitrary detention targeted at a range of religious workers. There are multiple accounts of masked men breaking into churches, theft or destruction of religious objects, and the prohibition of religious processions.
One year ago, the Nicaraguan government expelled the apostolic nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, who had advocated for the release of hundreds of imprisoned opponents in 2018 and 2019. At the time, the Holy See expressed its “surprise and pain” at the measure.
Last August, the Nicaraguan police imposed a siege of more than two weeks around the Episcopal Curia of Matagalpa, holding Bishop Álvarez captive along with three priests and four other people, who were later arrested and sentenced for “conspiracy.”
When the government deported 222 “political prisoners,” Álvarez refused to get on the plane and was put in the Modelo prison, where thousands of common criminals are held.
The crackdown on the 2018 protests by police and government-affiliated paramilitaries left 355 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and 1,600 detained at various times, according to human rights organizations.
Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.