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Rep. Chris Smith speaks as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on The Biden Administration's Priorities for U.S. Foreign Policy on Capitol Hill on March 10, 2021 in Washington, DC. Ken Cedeno-Pool / Getty Images

WASHINGTON, D.C. (LifeSiteNews) – A U.S. Congressman and religious liberty and human rights advocates have called on Pope Francis and the White House to act immediately to address the dire situation of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship and unrelenting persecution of the Church, which advocates declared constitutes a systematic dismantling of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.

On December 15, Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), a Catholic, chaired a congressional hearing for the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, entitled “The Perilous State of Religious Freedom in Nicaragua,” detailing the plight of Catholics in Nicaragua under Ortega. Just days before, Bishop Rolando Álvarez, an outspoken leader of the Church in Nicaragua and highly critical of the Ortega regime, was brought before a court and formally charged with “conspiracy to undermine national integrity” and “spreading false news through informational technologies.”

In a press release on the hearing Smith declared, “The egregious war being waged by the Ortega regime against religious freedom—especially against the Catholic Church and an extraordinarily brave Catholic leader, Bishop Álvarez—deserves greater recognition, not only from the Biden Administration but also and especially the Vatican.”

Questioning the silence of the Holy See and Pope Francis regarding the persecution of the church in Nicargua, Smith said forcefully, “Many, myself included, have also questioned why the Holy See and Pope Francis in particular have not been more vocal in light of this persecution of the Church and a courageous church leader like Bishop Álvarez—not to mention the expulsion of the Sisters of Charity, Mother Theresa’s order of nuns, from Nicaragua this past summer. They were reportedly forced to leave the country over land on foot to Costa Rica.”

“We also know that the Ortega regime has repeatedly denied requests by political prisoners for Bibles, denying them even this small, spiritual solace. I assume this relative silence was due to efforts behind the scenes to free Bishop Álvarez and others, and now that a formal judicial process has been initiated, the Pope and the Holy See will be less constrained in their comments.”

Smith affirmed that a recording of congressional hearing will be sent to the Vatican.

READ: Nicaragua’s Ortega attacks Catholic Church as ‘dictatorship’ amid global outcry over persecution

‘Horrific crimes against the people of Nicaragua’

As CNA reports and congressional testimony makes clear, “the night the bishop was taken into custody, other priests, seminarians, and a layman also were arrested and placed in the El Chipote prison, known for being a place of torture for opponents of the regime.”

Comparing the Ortega dictatorship to communist oppression in Poland, China, and the Congo, Smith pointed out the pattern of attacking the Catholic Church for its persistent defense of human rights in the face of tyranny. He said, “As we have seen in so many countries—from Poland during the days of the Iron Curtain to China under the brutal dictatorship of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party’s most recent persecution and conviction of Cardinal Joseph Zen, to the Democratic Republic of the Congo today—the faith community and the Catholic Church in particular has often been the strongest institutional voice against tyranny.”

Smith then called on the Pope and the President to hold Ortega accountable for his crimes against the Church and the people of Nicaragua, declaring, “The Vatican and the Biden Administration must raise their voices and take concrete action to hold Ortega to account for his horrific crimes against the people of Nicaragua.”

Detailing just some of Ortega’s persecution, Smith related that “more than 236 political prisoners—including many priests, seminarians and lay Catholic journalists—are believed to be incarcerated by Ortega, who has reportedly referred to priests as ‘killers,’ ‘terrorists,’ ‘coup plotters’ and accused the clergy of working on behalf of ‘American imperialism.’”

READ: Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro offers refuge for persecuted priests and nuns from Nicaragua

Smith also called attention to 190 instances of government attacks on Catholics and Catholic institutions in Nicaragua since 2018.

“It is unconscionable that we have not done everything we can to stop international loans from going to prop up this dirty dictatorship,” he said.

Pope’s ‘muted stance…has only emboldened Ortega’

Bianca Jagger, a native Nicaraguan, Catholic, and human rights activist, also testified in the hearing, saying, “The Ortega-Murillo regime is escalating their unholy war against the Catholic Church. The people of Nicaragua will continue to be terrorized by this dictatorship if concrete and effective actions are not taken.”

Jagger said that “every kind of religion is suffering the repression of this regime,” but Ortega is especially intent to “destroy the Catholic Church in Nicaragua.”

Eddy Acevedo, chief of staff and senior adviser to the president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, recommended that the President expel the Nicaraguan ambassador to the U.S. immediately. He also called for an investigation into whether the U.S. is unlawfully giving loans to Nicaragua that Ortega is then using to prop up his dictatorial regime.

During the hearing Smith entered into the record two recent news articles on the present situation of the Catholic church in Nicaragua: an opinion piece published by the Wall Street Journal titled “While Nicaragua Burns, Rome Fiddles: Pope Francis stands back while dictator Daniel Ortega persecutes the faith,” and an article published by RealClearPolitics titled “Ortega’s Brutal Catholic Crackdown – Where’s the Outrage?

The WSJ article took to task both Ortega for his “desperate” attempt “to silence the church,” and the Pope for his failure to defend the persecuted Catholics of Nicaragua. The author wrote:

It’s no surprise that Mr. Ortega is desperate to silence the church. The Castro acolyte recognizes the threat it presents to his rule, not unlike the church in Poland during Soviet times. Harder to fathom is the failure of Pope Francis to demand protection for his Nicaraguan flock and their local shepherds. Similar to their brethren in China, Venezuela and Cuba, who also have been left to fend for themselves, Nicaraguan Catholics are bewildered by Vatican timidity.

Giving the background of the more recent persecution of the Church and Ortega’s political manipulations of the elections, the WSJ stated:

Nicaraguan clerics have spoken out for years against Ortega tyranny, which has been getting worse since the spring of 2018. That’s when student protests against the government’s failure to contain a fire in a national park spread among the wider population… Last year, as Mr. Ortega prepared for his fourth run for the presidency, he locked up dozens of political opponents. The regime reported he “won” the election with 75% of the vote. Dozens of Ortega adversaries, including seven who had declared their intention to run for president, are serving lengthy sentences.

The WSJ reported that Christopher Ljungquist, an adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offered testimony before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in November on Ortega’s repression of the Church. In that testimony, Ljungquist related that “an ‘incendiary device’ detonated inside the Managua Cathedral in 2020” which was just one of “some 200 attacks on the church since 2018.”

He continued, “This year the Sisters of Charity were expelled from the country; scores of priests have been either exiled or have fled, and many face major obstacles in entering and leaving Nicaragua. Catholic radio stations have been shut down after criticizing the government’s abuses. In the past six months, 11 priests have been ‘kidnapped’ by the regime—taken away with no due process. Pope Francis is missing in action,” he lamented.

READ: Nicaragua’s anti-Catholic regime expels congregation of religious sisters

Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-FL) said in the same hearing before the Commission on International Religious Freedom that Ortega “wants to destroy the Catholic faith because it’s the only organization, which will not bow down before him.”

RealClearPolitics also noted that in Nicaragua “the systematic government attacks on the church picked up steam month by month this year.” It continued:

In a direct affront to the Roman Catholic Church, Ortega in March expelled Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, the Vatican’s diplomatic envoy to Nicaragua. In late summer, police shut down roughly 10 Catholic television and radio stations, depriving the citizens of their last independent news source.

The government also stripped funding from and terminated the legal status of multiple church-affiliated civil society groups, charities, and nuns. The barred organizations include the missionary order founded by Mother Theresa and the La Universidad CentroAmericana, a private Jesuit university operating in Managua since 1960. The university was the epicenter of anti-government protests in 2018.

The article then drew attention to the Pope’s silence, noting that some fear this has only emboldened Ortega. The article also questioned the Pope’s ability to adequately deal with totalitarian regimes, saying, “Yet, neither Francis’ offer to engage in a dialogue nor American sanctions have softened Ortega’s policies… Religious freedom advocates fear that Francis’ muted stance, coupled with the absence a major international backlash, has only emboldened Ortega.”

Citing the Vatican’s deal with Beijing on the appointment of bishops and the Pope’s apparent “abandoning” of Cardinal Joseph Zen, who was arrested, put on trial, and sentenced by the CCP in recent months, the article stated that “the pope’s critics say his experience growing up under socialism is impacting his ability to confront totalitarian communist regimes.”

READ: Will the Vatican defend the Church in Nicaragua, or broker a deal like in Communist China?

In a video that has widely circulated on social media, Bianca Jagger addressed Pope Francis directly, challenging him on his silence over the arrests of bishops and priests in Nicaragua. “Why, Your Holiness, have you not spoken about Bishop Alvarez and the priests that are in jail? Why not? [What] about the Nicaraguan prisoners that have been tortured?” she asked.

When asked in an interview in November about the Pope’s insistence on maintaining dialogue with the Ortega government, Jagger responded, “I am all for dialogue when they are real perspectives, real possibilities. But one should always be very careful when one talks about dialogue, one is not talking about complicity.”

The trial for Bishop Alvarez is ongoing. See below LifeSite’s extensive coverage of the persecution of the bishop and the Catholic Church in Nicaragua:

Bishop critical of Nicaraguan regime under investigation for alleged incitement of ‘violent groups’

Observer calls Pope Francis’ silence on Nicaraguan persecution of Church ‘scandalous’

European Parliament condemns repression of Catholic Church in Nicaragua, calls for release of bishop

Nicaraguan bishop critical of Ortega regime arrested amid investigation, Pope calls for ‘dialogue’