Nicaragua proposes suspension of Vatican relations after comments

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua’s government said Sunday it had proposed suspending ties with the Vatican, days after Pope Francis reportedly compared President Daniel Ortega’s government 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 suppressed anti-government protests. Some Catholic leaders sheltered the protesters in their churches, and the church later tried to mediate between the regime and the opposition.

Ortega called Catholics sympathetic to the opposition “terrorists” who supported efforts to overthrow him.

Dozens of religious figures were arrested or fled the country. Two congregations of nuns, including the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Teresa, were expelled last year, and prominent Catholic bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison last month after refusing to board a plane that would have taken him away. exile in the United States. He was also stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship.

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Pope Francis has remained largely silent on the issue, apparently not wanting to stir up tension, but in a March 10 interview with Argentinian press 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 testify and did not accept exile,” Francis said, referring to Álvarez. “This is something from outside that we live in, as if it were a communist dictatorship in 1917 or a Hitler dictatorship in 1935.”

Amid rumors that Nicaragua’s government had severed ties with the Vatican following the comments, the foreign ministry issued a statement on Sunday saying it had “recommended the suspension of relations between the Republic of Nicaragua and the Vatican State”.

Vatican sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the lack of an official announcement, said on Sunday night that Nicaragua had requested that both sides’ diplomatic missions be closed.

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A human rights group, Nicaragua Nunca Más, estimates that more than 50 religious leaders have fled since 2018, when social security reform sparked massive protests. Other church personnel, including priests, seminarians and lay staff, were among the 222 Nicaraguans who were released on February 9 and forcibly returned to the United States.

Nicaragua Nunca Más and CSW, a British-based organization that fights for religious freedom around the world, collected testimonies from dozens of people who described harassment, threats, physical violence and arbitrary detention against many religious workers. There are several reports of masked men breaking into churches, the theft or destruction of religious objects, and the banning of religious processions.

A year ago, the Nicaraguan government expelled Apostolic Nuncio Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag, who called for the release of hundreds of imprisoned opponents in 2018 and 2019. At the time, the Holy See expressed its “surprise and pain” at the measure.

Last August, Nicaraguan police ordered a siege of more than two weeks around the episcopal palace in Matagalpa, detaining Bishop Álvarez along with three priests and four others who were later arrested and convicted of “conspiracy”.

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When the government deported 222 “political prisoners,” Álvarez refused to board the plane and ended up in Modelo prison, where thousands of common criminals are held.

According to human rights groups, 355 people were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and 1,600 were detained at various times during the 2018 crackdown by police and government-linked paramilitary groups. ____

Frances D’Emilio reported from Rome.