WASHINGTON, D.C. (LifeSiteNews) — Exiled Nicaraguan Catholics testified on Capitol Hill this week, revealing some of the intense interrogations and tortures perpetrated by dictator Daniel Ortega’s communist regime in its persecution of the Church.
One of the exiles, who was arrested with Bishop Rolando Álvarez, revealed that the government wanted him to falsely declare that the bishop was the head of a coup against Ortega. The man refused to betray his bishop.
At a congressional hearing on November 30, Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Global Human Rights, listened to the testimony of exiled prisoners of conscience and their relatives. Smith demanded the immediate and unconditional release of imprisoned Bishop Álvarez, who is now the only known member of the Catholic clergy to remain behind bars in Nicaragua.
One of the prisoners of conscience (all of whose identities remained secret for safety reasons) testified that the Ortega regime used as a pretense for its persecution of the Catholic Church the accusation that Catholic priests and bishops were organizers of a failed coup d’état and wanted to organize another coup.
“We were accused of being members of an organized crime gang and that the leaders were the bishops, and above all, they said Rolando,” the first witness stated. “I was interrogated, and I was accused of giving hate speeches, of organizing an uprising. I was accused of undermining the dignity of the state and of Nicaragua, of spreading false news.”
“They always addressed the Monsignor [Bishop Álvarez] as if he were the thinking head and the organizer of the failed coup d’état and of wanting to organize a new coup. The aforementioned shows the great ignorance that the government and other authorities have of the prophetic role and the evangelical commitment of the bishops.”
A second exiled prisoner of conscience, who was arrested with Bishop Álvarez, recounted the kidnapping of the bishop with his curia and the subsequent interrogations and trial that sought to identify the bishop as the head of a supposed coup.
“These injustices increased in April 2018 when armed paramilitary groups and police violently repressed young people who were protesting in the streets of some departments of the country against the Social Security reforms carried out by the government,” the witness stated.
“Bishop Rolando Álvarez and some of his clergy came to the defense of the demonstrators, and some of the churches served as shelters and clinics for young people fleeing repression and wounded by police and ruling party members,” he continued:
I was kidnapped by the National Police of Nicaragua; I say kidnapped, because that day, at 3:00 a.m., a group of riot police violently entered the building of the episcopal curia and, without presenting any arrest warrant, took us out of the rooms and placed us in the conference room of the curia. There were five priests, among them the bishop of the Diocese of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez Lagos, a deacon, two seminarians, and a layman – a total of nine people who had been locked up for 15 days, because on August 4, the National Police locked them in that building.
I was transferred to the cells of Auxilio Judicial de Managua, a jail better known as the “Nuevo Chipote.” Our rights were violated because they did not tell us anything about the reason for our arrest. They stripped us naked, forced us to wear prison uniforms, and transferred me to one of the cells. That same day, the interrogations began. There were more than 30 interrogations, which could take place at any time of the day, even in the early hours of the morning.
They blackmailed me and threatened the lives of my relatives because they wanted me to declare that the bishop was a member of an organization that wanted to promote a coup d’état against Daniel Ortega and that he received money from the U.S. government and the European Union.
Other interrogations had to do with homilies that the bishop had said in some Eucharists and in which, according to them, he was inciting people to rise up to protest against the government. The homilies are all on social networks, and in them he simply exercises his freedom of expression and advocates for the defense of the human rights of Nicaraguans.
It is clear that this is manipulated by the same government that does not like to hear the truth and the voice of the Catholic Church, so from that date began an open persecution of Catholic institutions, such as Caritas and John Paul II University and more recently the Central American University (UCA), thus affecting university autonomy and academic freedom.
While the interrogations were taking place, the trial against the group that was in the episcopal curia was also taking place. The trial from the beginning was full of irregularities, illegalities, and vices. The prosecutor’s office, the police, and the judges colluded so that, in the end, the accusation was practically the same for the majority of the 222, including the priests and the bishop. In the same way, once the sentence was pronounced, we were accused of “treason,” and all our civil rights were taken away to the point of not even presenting us at the Civil Registry office.
As I pointed out earlier, we were taken out of jail on the night of Wednesday, February 8, around 10:30 p.m., and taken on three buses to an unknown destination until we were on the tarmac of the Air Force airport, and it was explained to us that we were leaving for exile in the United States. When we were in Washington the next day, we realized that the bishop was not on that plane. He is being held in the prison known as La Modelo in Tipitapa, Managua, Nicaragua.
A mother of a prisoner of conscience testified that her son was kidnapped by Sandinista police and subsequently tortured with other prisoners in the government crackdown on civilians against which the Church in Nicaragua, including Bishop Álvarez, had raised its voice.
“In the city of Matagalpa, on May 15, the Sandinista police and paramilitary groups attacked the young demonstrators. The Catholic priests interceded and achieved a ceasefire,” the mother recounted. “The Catholic Church opened the doors of its churches to protect the life and integrity of the students and demonstrators.”
On May 30, Nicaraguan Mother’s Day, a march was organized in support of the mothers of the assassinated youths. Thousands of Nicaraguans participated, among them my family and myself. As the march progressed, gun shots were heard. The dictatorship had snipers, and they shot at the civilian population that participated.
My eldest son and other young people set out to help the wounded. My husband, one of my sons, and I managed to get to our house. However, my oldest son could not; he took refuge in the cathedral of the Catholic Church. In the early morning of the next day, my husband and I managed to get them out of the cathedral.
One of my sons was kidnapped by paramilitaries in mid-2018. At the time of his kidnapping, two Catholic priests were passing by who immediately informed us of the kidnapping. The same day of his kidnapping, my son was transferred to the torture prison El Chipote.
The mothers remained outside the prison day and night, accompanied by several priests. We did not know if our sons were alive or dead. It was until Bishop Rolando José Álvarez arrived at El Chipote and asked to see the kidnapped young men – until that moment I knew that my son was alive.
Bishop Rolando Álvarez, together with all the clergy of the Diocese of Matagalpa, celebrated a Mass outside the Chipote for the freedom of the kidnapped and for the peace of Nicaragua.
As the dictatorship was opening trials for the kidnapped, they were being transferred to the Modelo prison. The Catholic Church made arrangements so that we could see them.
The visit took place in a large cell where there were many rusty iron bars. The condition of the cell was deplorable, very dirty. I saw my son tortured, his whole body was beaten and with many insect bites. Right next to us were some young men, maybe 15, 16 years old. You could see the tortures they had been subjected to. I remember that one of them lifted up his pants and showed me his calf—it had been burned with acid. He could not bend the fingers of his hands due to the tortures.
Addressing the exiled Nicaraguans, Congressman Smith insisted, “It is crucial that the world hears your voices and learns the truth about what is happening in Nicaragua, including the truth about the prison conditions and treatment of Bishop Álvarez. The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening to the people of Nicaragua—including and especially people of faith.”
Detailing the persecution of the Church in Nicaragua, Smith continued, “The regime has closed Catholic radio stations and universities, obstructed access to places of worship, banned public Way of the Cross processions, and frozen the bank accounts of hundreds of Catholic institutions. Prisoners’ requests for Bibles have been denied. Bishops and priests, as well as worshippers, have been harassed and detained, and the religious order of sisters founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta—the Missionaries of Charity—has been expelled.”
“Bishop Álvarez is now the only known cleric to remain imprisoned by the regime, and it’s time to let him go. Just last month, 12 priests were sent from imprisonment in Nicaragua to exile in the Vatican—but Bishop Álvarez was not among them—why?” Smith asked.
“I am in awe of his courage, faithfulness, and kindness and by his extraordinary strength. Instead of lashing out in bitterness at his captors—including President Ortega—Bishop Álvarez has called for forgiveness, renewal, and hope,” the Catholic congressman declared. “Bishop Álvarez deserves to be respected and revered—not persecuted and incarcerated.”
“He conveys hope, holiness, and humility to the people of Nicaragua—and the world.”
“Bishop Álvarez is an innocent man enduring unspeakable suffering,” Smith continued. “His life and ministry have been an inspiring example of compassion, kindness, integrity, and selfless service.”
Addressing Nicaragua’s dictator directly, the congressman declared, “Today we appeal to President Daniel Ortega—let imprisoned Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez go. Release him from prison.”
Bishop Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years and four months in prison in February on the specious charge of being “a traitor to the homeland” following his refusal to abandon his flock by leaving the country. In July, the bishop was released from prison only to be thrown again behind bars two days later after he refused to leave the country while 12 other priests remain imprisoned. In October, those priests were released and exiled to Rome, where they were received by the Vatican, which negotiated their freedom.