MATAGALPA, Nicaragua: Nicaraguan police on Friday (Saturday in Manila) accused the Catholic Church and Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who has been besieged in his residence for two days, of inciting violence to destabilize the Central American country .
In a statement, police said the Church and Alvarez, a vocal critic of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, were “trying to organize violent groups and inciting them to commit acts of hatred against” the government, adding that a investigation had been opened.
Alvarez, along with a number of priests and lay people, has been locked up in the episcopal residence in Matagalpa, in the north of the country, since Thursday, when riot police prevented him from leaving to say mass.
It is the latest incident in a rapidly worsening standoff between civil society and a government accused of growing authoritarianism.
The 55-year-old bishop, in a video Thursday, denounced official “harassment” and urged the government to respect religious freedom.
Police accused those locked in the residence of causing “an atmosphere of anxiety and disorder, disturbing peace and harmony in the community with the aim of destabilizing the State of Nicaragua and attacking the constitutional authorities”. .
The Church in Nicaragua has come under increasing pressure from the government since opposition protests in 2018 were met with a crackdown that left 355 people dead, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Ortega, who argues the protests were part of a Washington-backed opposition plot to overthrow him, accused the bishops of complicity and said protesters were using church buildings as “barracks”.
Churches sheltered demonstrators who were injured or went into hiding.
Restricted from walking to his church four blocks away on Friday, Alvarez opted to give Mass from the residence and stream it live on Facebook.
“The road in front of our clergy house is closed by the national police. And the main gate, as well as the garage, are also blocked by the riot police. However, even in this situation, we maintain our joy, our strength and our inner peace,” Alvarez told congregants.
The siege came just days after Alvarez denounced the authorities’ closure of five radio stations in his diocese of Matagalpa.
This follows the June closure of several Catholic news channels.
The European Union on Thursday condemned the “arbitrary” closure of Catholic and community broadcasters, and said “excessive police force was used to occupy facilities and to intimidate and disperse unarmed protesters.”
This amounts to “a further violation of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief,” EU spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement.
Ortega, a 76-year-old former guerrilla, has ruled Nicaragua since 2007, winning three successive re-elections.
The last vote took place in November 2021, with several of Ortega’s main rivals joining dozens of other government opponents and critics in jail. AFP
According to the EU, Nicaragua has more than 180 political prisoners.
In the first half of 2022, the bloc said, Nicaraguan authorities shut down more than 1,200 civil society organizations.
The Vatican said Nicaragua expelled its ambassador to the country in March.
A charity created by Saint Teresa of Calcutta was banned in July and its nuns were forced to leave the country.
On Friday, Matagalpa parishioners held a prayer service for Alvarez.
“The church is persecuted just for preaching the gospel, just for that, because we only pray, praise the Lord and glorify him,” parishioner Maria Ruiz told Agence France-Presse (AFP ).
Mainstream Nicaraguan media also accused Ortega’s government of a level of harassment that forced media personnel to flee abroad.
Last month, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on Nicaragua to “stop raids on journalists’ homes and allow the media to operate freely”.