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ROME – Calling the move “incomprehensible,” the Vatican confirmed Saturday that its representative in Nicaragua has been expelled by the government of President Daniel Ortega.

A statement said the Vatican had received “with surprise and sorrow” a communication that the government of Nicaragua decided to withdraw the diplomatic acceptance of Polish Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, who has served as the pope’s nuncio, or ambassador, in the country since 2018.

According to the Vatican, he was forced “to leave the country immediately after notifying him of this measure.”

Although the Vatican officially labeled the move as “incomprehensible,” sources have told Crux that they had regarded such a move as a possibility since 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 previous three years when he served as a behind-the-scenes interlocutor between the government and families of people jailed by the Ortega government.

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

In its statement, the Vatican praised the work Sommertag had done mediating the freeing of many of these political leaders.

The “disposition is incomprehensible since, during his mission,” Sommertag “worked tirelessly for the good of the church and the Nicaraguan people, especially for the most vulnerable, always seeking to favor good relations between the Apostolic See and the Authorities of Nicaragua.”

“His participation as a witness and accompanier of the National Dialogue Table between the Government and the political opposition, in view of national reconciliation and the release of political prisoners, deserves particular mention,” the Vatican said.

Usually when an ambassador is expelled from one country, the other nation also expels the envoy of the first. However, Nicaraguan Ambassador Eliette Ortega Sotomayor left her post in August 2021 after only six months and Ortega never replaced her, so the role is vacant.

The situation between church and state has long been tense in Nicaragua, but it became even more complicated during, and after, a civil revolt in 2018. The spark that lit the fire of mass protest was an announcement by the  government of changes to the pension system that would have had a deeply negative impact on the elderly.

Since the 2018 uprising, 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 also 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.

It’s unknown if Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, would accept another papal nuncio, but sources have told Crux that, at this point, the Vatican is not planning on sending a replacement.

Increased persecution of the local Catholic hierarchy has merited the attention of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom. The situation puts the Vatican in a tight spot, as the country’s  bishops have long been acknowledged as the only “opposition” voices who haven’t been imprisoned.

Sommertag’s expulsion leaves those prelates more unprotected, which is why the Vatican’s embassy in Nicaragua is expected to remain open despite the absence of an ambassador, at least for as long as the government allows it.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma