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5/20/2024 Washington, D.C. (International Christian Concern) At an event last week honoring exiled Nicaraguan priest Bishop Rolando Álvarez, Senator Marco Rubio, International Republican Institute (IRI) President Daniel Twining, and others argued that religious freedom is critical to democracy.   

“Every human being has dignity and certain inalienable rights endowed by our creator,” Senator Rubio said. “The concept of freedom and liberty is not a political one, but a spiritual one.” 

IRI is one of several D.C.-based institutions created under President Ronald Reagan’s administration dedicated to promoting democracy worldwide. In remarks harkening back to President Reagan’s famous Westminster speech, IRI Chairman Dan Sullivan recalled the history of American democracy-building and its integral connection to religious freedom. 

“The United States prevailed in the Cold War … through the principle of peace through strength, building allies and partners, and a commitment to individual and religious liberty,” said Sullivan, according to an IRI press release marking this week’s event. “If we support democratic governments and the expansion of free societies, it is imperative that, as President Reagan did, we prioritize religious liberty when we’re talking about human rights.” 

Just as religious freedom promotes democracy, democracy also supports religious freedom, Twining argued. “While tyranny produces oppression, conflict, and poverty, democracy advances freedom, peace, and prosperity.” 

This week’s event was organized to present Bishop Álvarez with the John McCain Freedom Award, IRI’s highest recognition, for his “unwavering commitment to religious freedom” in Nicaragua and around the world. In standing up to the oppressive Ortega regime in Nicaragua, Bishop Álvarez “not only fights for freedom of worship in his own country but also for the religious freedom of all of us,” Sullivan said. 

Though thousands of nongovernmental organizations have lost their legal status due to a murky 2018 law on funding, the Catholic church has been particularly targeted due to its outspoken criticism of the regime’s sordid human rights record and its decision to shelter student protestors in 2019. 

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. The Missionaries of Charity was stripped of its legal status in late June, an administrative measure that laid the groundwork for its eventual expulsion. 

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

The U.S. Department of State added Nicaragua to the Special Watchlist (SWL) of countries with particularly severe violations of religious freedom in 2019. This designation continued until 2022, when it made the Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) list. The latter designation indicates increased concern about the state of religious freedom in Nicaragua and normally carries with it certain legislatively mandated consequences in the form of sanctions. 

“Catholic clergy and laity continued to experience government harassment,” said a 2022 State Department publication citing media reports, “including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies based on charges that clergy and laity said were unfounded, withholding of tax exemptions, and denial of religious services for political prisoners.” 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) similarly began including Nicaragua in its report in 2020, recommending that it be added to the SWL then and upgrading its recommendation to the CPC list in 2023. 

Arguing for its CPC recommendation in its most recent annual report, USCIRF noted that “religious freedom conditions in Nicaragua worsened significantly” in 2023. “The government of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo intensified its efforts to arbitrarily arrest, imprison, and expel Catholic clergymen and laypeople. The government also canceled the legal status of Catholic organizations, confiscated their property, and harassed and intimidated worshipers.” 

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