MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — Nicaragua’s government said Sunday it has proposed cutting ties with the Vatican days after Pope Francis reportedly compared President Daniel Ortega’s administration to a communist or Nazi dictatorship amid a crackdown on the Catholic Church in the Central American country .
Relations between the church and the Nicaraguan government have deteriorated since 2018, when authorities violently cracked down on anti-government protests. Some Catholic leaders sheltered the protesters in their churches, and the church later tried to act as a mediator between the regime and the opposition.
Ortega labeled Catholic figures he considered sympathetic to the opposition as “terrorists” who supported efforts to oust him from power.
Dozens of religious figures were arrested or fled the country. Two congregations of nuns – including from the Missionaries of Charity order founded by Mother Teresa – were expelled last year, and prominent Catholic bishop Rolando Alvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison last month after refusing to board a plane. which would drive him into exile in the United States. He was also stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship.
Pope Francis has remained largely silent on the issue, apparently not wanting to inflame tensions, but in a March 10 interview with Argentine media outlet Infobae, he called Ortega’s government a “brutal dictatorship” led by an “unbalanced” president.
In Nicaragua, “we have a bishop in prison, a very serious and able man who wanted to give his witness and did not accept exile,” Francis said, referring to Alvarez. “It is something outside of what we live in, as if it were a communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitlerite one in 1935.”
Amid rumors that the Nicaraguan government had severed ties with the Vatican following the comments, its foreign ministry released a statement on Sunday saying: “a suspension of relations between the Republic of Nicaragua and the Vatican State has been proposed.”
Vatican sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because there had been no official announcement, said Sunday evening that there had been a request from Nicaragua to close each country’s diplomatic missions.
Human rights group Nicaragua Nunca Más estimated that more than 50 religious leaders have fled since 2018, when a social security reform sparked mass protests. Other church personnel – including priests, seminarians and lay people – were among the 222 Nicaraguans released from custody and forcibly deported to the United States on February 9.
Nicaragua Nunca Más and CSW, a UK-based organization that advocates for religious freedom around the world, have collected testimonies from dozens of people who described harassment, threats, physical violence and arbitrary detention directed at a number of religious officials. There are numerous accounts of masked men breaking into churches, stealing or destroying religious objects, and banning religious processions.
A year ago, the Nicaraguan government expelled Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Stanislav Sommertag, who advocated the release of hundreds of jailed opponents in 2018 and 2019. At the time, the Holy See expressed its “surprise and pain” at the move.
Last August, Nicaraguan police imposed a siege of more than two weeks around the episcopal curia of Matagalpa, holding Bishop Alvarez captive along with three priests and four other people who were later arrested and convicted of “conspiracy.”
When the government deported 222 “political prisoners,” Alvarez refused to board the plane and was placed in Modelo prison, where thousands of common criminals are held.
A crackdown on protests in 2018 by police and government-linked paramilitary groups left 355 people dead, more than 2,000 injured and 1,600 detained at various times, according to rights groups. ____
Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.