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5/20/2024 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) Highlighting the dire conditions being experienced by the Catholic church in Nicaragua, D.C.-based International Republican Institute (IRI) honored Bishop Rolando Álvarez, an exiled Nicaraguan priest, with the John S. McCain Freedom Award on Wednesday, May 15. The award comes as President Daniel Ortega’s regime continues to escalate its persecution of the Catholic church and honors Bishop Álvarez’s fortitude in the face of persecution. 

Bishop Álvarez was arrested in 2022 and sentenced to 26 years in prison for speaking publicly about the persecution the Nicaraguan church is facing. After serving a year in prison, the United States successfully negotiated for him to be flown out of the country as part of a group of 222 unjustly detained prisoners. 

Bishop Álvarez now resides in the Vatican and is in poor health after enduring harsh treatment while in custody. Fifteen other Nicaraguan priests, also former political prisoners, reside with him at the Vatican — a sign of the scale of the Ortega regime’s persecution. 

In person at the IRI event to accept the award on Bishop Álvarez’s behalf was Father Benito Martinez, another exiled Nicaraguan priest. 

Speaking at the International Religious Freedom Summit earlier this year, an exiled Nicaraguan explained the duress being experienced by the church in Nicaragua today. 

“As a church, we are living through the worst moments in our history in Nicaragua since its arrival more than 500 years ago to the present moment,” the priest told the audience. He himself was arrested, insulted, beaten, and imprisoned for months, and his family in Nicaragua is left to live with police parked outside their home, watching their every move.  

This type of surveillance is increasingly common in Nicaragua where, according to Father Martinez, “Every Sunday, patrol cars full of police are parked in front of the country’s Catholic churches” and “the faithful who attend the Eucharist on Sundays are photographed [and] the homilies delivered by the remaining priests are being recorded.”  

This type of surveillance regime is strikingly similar to that imposed by China on its religious communities. Nicaragua maintains a close relationship with China, which it sees as an important ally in the face of increasing sanctions from the West and a struggling economy. In December 2023, China and Nicaragua announced upgraded relations, bringing the two autocracies even closer together than before.  

In July 2022, Nicaragua expelled 18 nuns from the Missionaries of Charity order, founded by Mother Theresa and active in Nicaragua since 1988. According to the BBC, the nuns were bussed under police escort to the country’s southern border and made to walk across into Costa Rica. Authorities stripped Missionaries of Charity of their legal status in late June, an administrative measure that laid the groundwork for their later expulsion. 

Earlier in 2022, the Ortega government expelled the Vatican’s ambassador to Nicaragua, a move that drew pointed condemnation from the church.

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