News 16 Jan 2024

ACN welcomes release of priests in Nicaragua, but concerns over lack of religious freedom remain

Nineteen clerics have been released and expelled from the country, joining dozens of others who faced exile in recent years. Restrictions on religious freedom persist in a nation where four out of nine dioceses now have bishops residing abroad, according to Regina Lynch, the executive president of Aid to the Church in Need.

The international charity, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), applauds the release of the 19 clerics who were detained in Nicaragua for speaking out against injustices and human rights violations or simply for attempting to operate freely. However, the organization expresses concern over their forced departure from the country and the ongoing repression of religious freedom in the Latin American state.

The Nicaraguan Government officially announced the release, providing a list of names, including two bishops, 15 priests, and two seminarians. The group was released on Sunday, January 14, and all but one, who remained in Venezuela due to health issues, arrived in Rome on the same day.

Among those released were Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa, arrested in August 2022 and sentenced to 26 years in prison but refusing exile to the USA in 2023, and Bishop Isidoro de Carmen Mora Ortega of Siuna, arrested in December for mentioning Alvarez in a homily during a major crackdown.

Regina Lynch, the executive president of Aid to the Church in Need, cautiously welcomes the release but notes lingering concerns about religious freedom in Nicaragua. She emphasizes the need for support for Bishop Rolando Alvarez's recovery after his 16-month detention and highlights the injustice of separating other clerics from their flocks and families.

The mass release and exile of clerics appear to follow a pattern of behavior by the regime against the Church and its members. In October 2023, another 12 priests were released and sent to the Vatican, and a prior group had been part of a mass exile to the USA in February 2023.

International pressure, both politically (from Washington to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) and in the media, has been increasing in the context of repression with few precedents in Latin America.

Contrastingly, the Vatican has not issued an official statement. While Vatican News announced the release, the tone differs significantly from the optimism expressed in the Nicaraguan Government's press release about the relationship between the Holy See and the Latin American government.

The forced exile of these priests adds to the challenges faced by the growing number of clerics leaving the country since the regime's increased oppression against the Church, including the expulsion of Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag in March 2022.

This exodus of priests has presented pastoral and administrative difficulties in some dioceses, as three of Nicaragua's dioceses are now led by bishops in exile. Since 2022, 50 priests have been arrested, and approximately 15% of the country's clergy now live abroad due to fear of arrest, deportation, or denial of reentry.

Regina Lynch concludes, "Religious freedom is a cornerstone of liberty, and autocratic regimes always fear the witness and voice of those whose lives are dedicated to living and spreading the Gospel of love. The restrictions on religious freedom persist in a country where four out of nine dioceses now have bishops living abroad. We pray that the Church and the people of Nicaragua will one day be free to speak their minds and practice their faith without fear or repercussions."

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