Denver, Colo., Feb 14, 2023 / 16:52 pm (CNA).
The U.S. government must seek the release of Nicaragua’s Bishop Rolando Álvarez Lagos, sentenced to 26 years in prison for religious freedom advocacy. That is the urgent message from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
“We are appalled that Bishop Álvarez will now serve 26 years in prison for raising concerns about Nicaragua’s many religious freedom violations. This miscarriage of justice will not be forgotten,” USCIRF Commissioner Frederick A. Davie said Feb. 14. “USCIRF urges the U.S. government to call on the Nicaraguan government to release Bishop Álvarez immediately and unconditionally.”
Álvarez, who has served as bishop of Matagalpa since 2011, last Thursday refused to board a plane with 222 released political prisoners, including four priests. The released prisoners were flown to the U.S. in an agreement with the U.S. State Department.
On Friday Álvarez was stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship and sentenced to 26 years and four months in prison. He was accused of being a “traitor to the homeland.” Specific charges included undermining national security and sovereignty, spreading fake news, obstructing an official in the performance of his duties, and aggravated disobedience or contempt of authority.
USCIRF rejected the charges against the bishop, saying he was imprisoned for criticizing religious freedom conditions and was denied due process.
“While the release of the 222 political prisoners was a welcome gesture by the Nicaraguan government, it is not enough. The subsequent sentencing of Bishop Álvarez demonstrates that the regime’s campaign against the Catholic Church will not soon abate,” USCIRF commissioner Frank Wolf, a former member of Congress, said Tuesday. “The U.S. government should use every tool at their disposal to encourage the restoration of democracy and human rights in Nicaragua.”
USCIRF, an independent, bipartisan government agency, monitors global religious freedom issues and advises Congress, the U.S. State Department, and the president.
In the last five years, Nicaragua’s government under President Daniel Ortega has increasingly targeted the Catholic Church. Church leaders acted as mediators with foes of Ortega after massive 2018 protests, and Ortega has accused Catholic leaders of trying to overthrow him.
Bishop Álvarez was among nearly a dozen Catholic clergy and lay leaders arrested or imprisoned in 2022. Last year the government targeted clergy, eliminated Church-affiliated organizations, and put restrictions on religious observances.
His government has also taken action to repress Catholic radio and television stations. It has driven Catholic religious orders, including the Missionaries of Charity, from the country.
Ortega, who leads Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front party, has governed Nicaragua continuously since 2007 together with his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is now the vice president. The government has variously been accused of corruption, voter fraud, imprisoning critical dissenters and journalists, and committing violent human rights abuses against the people of Nicaragua.
Pope Francis expressed his support for the imprisoned bishop during his Sunday Angelus address. The pope said the Nicaragua news grieved him “a great deal.” He voiced concern for Álvarez and prayed for the 222 deported Nicaraguan political prisoners.
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