Pope Francis used his New Year’s Day address to highlight concern over the worsening situation of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua as a result of a protracted crackdown by the government of President Daniel Ortega, which has detained clerics, expelled missionaries, closed Catholic radio stations and limited religious celebrations.
Speaking to the faithful gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the traditional New Year’s Angelus prayer and blessing, Francis said he was “following with concern what is happening in Nicaragua, where bishops and priests have been deprived of their freedom.”
He expressed his “closeness in prayer to them, their families and the entire church in the country,” and called on all Catholics to “pray insistently” to find “a path of dialogue to overcome difficulties.”
“Let’s pray for Nicaragua today,” Francis said.
Vatican News reported on Monday that at least 14 priests, two seminarians and a bishop had been arrested in recent days in Nicaragua, and that the country’s top church leader, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, had expressed his closeness “to the families and communities who are without their priests at this time.”
Since 2018, as Mr. Ortega has increasingly sidelined political opponents from all walks of life, detaining many and suppressing civic rights, the country’s catholic leaders remained among the only independent voices of dissent.
Gianni La Bella, a professor of contemporary history at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, said in a 2022 interview that since 2018, there had been dozens of attacks of various kinds against the church and its institutions, a sign that the Ortega government perceived the “Church as an obstacle,” as the “only beacon that can shed light on the conditions of the people in Nicaragua.”
Church leaders initially tried to mediate between the government and political oppositions but they were unsuccessful, and the government’s crackdown intensified.
In the long campaign to dismantle the church’s reach in the country, dozens of clerics and missionaries have been detained or expelled, and Catholic institutions shut down.
Since 2018 the Catholic Church in Nicaragua has been subject to more than 770 attacks, arrests, expropriations, and harassment including “impediments to processions, prayers, masses in cemeteries,” as well as hate messages, according to Martha Patricia Molina, a Nicaraguan lawyer and author of the study “Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church?”
In August 2022, Bishop Rolando Álvarez became the most senior clergyman to be detained in Latin America for political views in decades.
After his arrest, Pope Francis spoke of “his concern and sorrow” over the situation in Nicaragua. “I would like to express my conviction and my hope that, through an open and sincere dialogue, the basis for a respectful and peaceful coexistence might still be found,” Francis said after the weekly Angelus prayer at that time.
In February, Bishop Álvarez was convicted of treason, stripped of his citizenship and sentenced to 26 years in prison.
After the sentence, Francis again spoke of his concern and sorrow over the imprisonment, and also the fate of clerics who had been deported to the United States. At the time, he called for the hearts of political leaders to be open “to the sincere search for peace, which is born of truth, justice, freedom and love, and which is achieved through the patient pursuit of dialogue.”
In March, the Vatican closed its embassy in Nicaragua, after the Nicaraguan government proposed suspending relations with the Holy See, and its representative to Managua, Msgr. Marcel Diouf, left the country for Costa Rica, The Associated Press reported. The Vatican’s ambassador had been forced to leave a year earlier.
Some of the clerics who have been imprisoned have been released and in October, the Vatican announced that 12 priests from Nicaragua who had recently been released from prison would be housed in the Diocese of Rome.
In 1979, Mr. Ortega led the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the corrupt dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Mr. Ortega lost elections in 1990 but reclaimed the presidency in 2007, and spent a decade chipping away at the country’s democracy.
Tens of thousands of people rose up against Mr. Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, in 2018, accusing them of being a dictatorial family dynasty. Hundreds of people landed in prison for opposing the government, and at least 300 were shot in protests.
Last year, Mr. Ortega began seizing the properties of political prisoners and dissidents forced into exile, including a prominent Jesuit-run university in Managua, seizing school buildings and bank accounts and accusing the school being a “center of terrorism,” according to Fides, a Catholic news agency.
Throughout the crackdown, the Vatican has opted to keep doors of communication with the government open.
On Monday, Francis spoke of finding a “a path of dialogue to overcome difficulties,” echoing what Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Secretary for the Relations with States and International Organizations, had said last September at the opening of the 78th Session of the United Nations General Assembly New York. At the time, Archbishop Gallagher had said that the Vatican hoped to “engage in respectful diplomatic dialogue for the good of the local Church and of the entire population.”
Writing in Fides, the journalist Victor Gaetan, author of a book on Vatican diplomacy, wrote that the Vatican strategy was to engage in dialogue with the government and it had encouraged the top cleric in the country, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua, to not antagonize the regime.
“A common Vatican strategy, especially under an autocratic regime, is to maintain a presence and resist being swallowed — quietly working to limit the state’s most aggressive tactics while seeking preservation of the sacraments and apostolic succession, Mr. Gaetan wrote.
The approach, he said, had been described by Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, Secretary of State under Pope John Paul II and an architect of Vatican diplomacy with Communist regimes, as the “martyrdom of patience.”
Mr. Gaetan said that Cardinal Brenes has been criticized “for being timid in the face of Ortega’s tightening noose on the Church.” And yet, he wrote, “he stands alone.”