ROME – An outspoken Catholic bishop who spent over a year behind bars for criticizing the regime of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and whose case has received broad international attention, was released Saturday along with 18 others.
The news that Bishop Rolando Álvarez and 18 others had been released from prison was first reported by local media and was later confirmed by the Nicaraguan government and reported by Vatican News, the Vatican’s official state-run information platform.
In addition to Álvarez, who spent 528 days in prison, others released include Bishop Isidoro del Carmen Mora Ortega of Siuna, who was arrested shortly before Christmas and a day after he publicly requested prayers for Álvarez, as well as 15 priests and two seminarians.
All of the clergymen were released and exiled, arriving in Rome Sunday afternoon as guests of the Holy See, where they had an initial meeting with the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
The Nicaraguan government issued a statement on their release crediting the pope and the Holy See’s diplomatic efforts, saying, “We thank the Holy Father, Pope Francis, [and] the Secretariat of State and its [prefect], Cardinal Pietro Parolin, and his working group, for the respectful and discreet management carried out in order to make this trip to the Vatican possible” for those who were released.
The government said a “frank, direct, prudent and very serious dialogue” helped to assure both the release of the clergymen and their transfer to Rome.
Pope Francis repeatedly has spoken out about the situation in Nicaragua and has appealed multiple times for Álvarez’s release, most recently during his Angelus address on Jan. 1, in which he voiced concern for the situation in Nicaragua, “where bishops and priests have been deprived of their freedom.”
He assured the families and friends of those in prison of his closeness and prayer, and voiced hope “that the path of dialogue will always be sought to overcome difficulties.”
In his Jan. 8 speech to the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See, Francis voiced concern for the status of Nicaragua again, saying the situation in the country “remains troubling: a protracted crisis with painful consequences for Nicaraguan society as a whole, and in particular for the Catholic Church.”
“The Holy See continues to encourage a respectful diplomatic dialogue for the benefit of Catholics and the entire population,” he said.
Nicaragua and the Holy See do not currently hold diplomatic ties, as Nicaragua severed relations in April of last year and ousted the Vatican’s envoy, prompting the Holy See to close its embassy.
Tensions between church and state in Nicaragua have escalated dramatically over the past 18 months as the regime of Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, have reinforced a harsh crackdown over allegations that church leaders supported protests against the Ortega administration in April 2018, which Ortega has described as an attempted coup.
Álvarez, one of the government’s most vocal critics in the Nicaraguan church, was arrested in August 2022 after having announced a hunger strike in May of that year to protest police harassment.
After his arrest, he spent six months under house arrest and, after refusing to join a group of over 200 political prisoners released into U.S., in January 2023 he was charged with treason and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
In addition to clergy, the Nicaraguan government has also targeted Catholic orders and institutions, and other entities, so far outlawing or shutting down more than 3,000 civic groups and NGOs.
Last May, the government ordered the Red Cross to cease operations, accusing the organization of “attacks on peace and stability” during the 2018 demonstrations, with the Red Cross pushing back, saying it had simply treated injured protesters.
In June, the government confiscated properties belonging to 222 opposition figures who were exiled to the U.S. in February. Among those on board the flight to the U.S. were seven presidential candidates who were barred from running in the Nicaragua’s 2021 election, as well as several lawyers, journalists, rights activists, and former members of the Sandinista guerrilla movement.
Thousands of Nicaraguans have fled into exile since the Orgeta regime’s violent crackdown on the 2018 protests, with Ortega saying the demonstrations were an attempted coup with foreign backing.
Last year, in addition to the severing of diplomatic ties, two orders of nuns, including Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, were expelled from the country along with Pope Francis’s Jesuit order.
In October of last year, 12 Nicaraguan priests were released from prison and were also hosted by the Holy See. While the release of Álvarez, Mora and the others who arrived in Rome Sunday is seen as a significant step forward, many more political prisoners in Nicaragua remain behind bars.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen