The government said in a statement that the bishop had “persisted in his destabilizing and provocative activities”. He did not specify or elaborate on the legal charges the Catholic leader faced. Two weeks ago, the police surrounded his residence, saying he was being investigated for allegedly sponsoring violent anti-government groups, a charge he denies. Government spokeswoman Rosa Murillo — Ortega’s wife and vice president — did not respond to a message seeking comment.
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Over the past year, Ortega’s government has imprisoned almost all of its most notorious opponents, including seven politicians who were due to run for president last November. His government has also shut down hundreds of civil society groups, as well as universities and media outlets, in one of the hemisphere’s most intense crackdowns.
He engaged in an increasingly bitter feud with religious leaders in the majority Catholic country, shutting down eight Catholic radio stations and expelling the Vatican’s ambassador, the Reverend Waldemar Sommertag. Authorities also expelled 18 nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, who helped run shelters and orphanages.
Relations between Ortega and the church soured after the government cracked down on nationwide protests in 2018, sparking street battles that left more than 360 people dead, according to human rights groups. When the Catholic bishops called for justice, the Ortega government accused them of plotting a coup. Several priests and a prominent bishop, Silvio Báez de Managua, went into exile.
Álvarez, 55, has recently been the government’s most influential Catholic critic, speaking out in radio and newspaper interviews about what he condemned as Ortega’s authoritarian behavior. After his arrest, the Archdiocese of Managua said his physical condition deteriorated but “his courage and spirit are strong”.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres is “very concerned about the severe closure of democratic and civic space in Nicaragua and recent actions against civil society organizations, including those of the Catholic Church” , a deputy spokesman told reporters on Friday after the bishop’s arrest. He called on the Nicaraguan government to guarantee “the freedoms of association, thought, conscience and religion, and to release all those arbitrarily detained”.
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Government critics said Álvarez’s detention was staggering, even by the standards of a country whose democracy had shrunk.
“With a pained and indignant heart, I condemn the nocturnal kidnapping of Monsignor Álvarez,” Báez, who lives in the United States, tweeted. “Once again, the dictatorship has surpassed even its own evil and evil spirit.”
Pope Francis has not publicly commented on the bishop’s detention or any other recent government action against the Catholic Church, much to the dismay of some Latin American human rights activists. Vatican Permanent Observer to the Organization of American States, Monsignor Juan Antonio Cruz Serrano, expressed his concern this month on the developments and called for dialogue.
Ortega, 76, helped lead the Marxist Sandinista revolution that triumphed in 1979, toppling the US-backed Somoza dictatorship. He led the government until 1990, then returned to power in 2007. Last year he won an election after eliminating all possible opposition. Human rights organizations say his government has detained more than 160 political prisoners.
The United Nations estimates that more than 120,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country since 2018, the largest exodus since the civil war of the 1980s.
Álvarez himself left the country during the civil war to settle in Guatemala, where he studied for the priesthood. In 2011 he was appointed bishop of Matagalpa, one of the least developed regions of Nicaragua. In 2015, he led large protests against government plans to allow mining in a northern region of the country, accusing it of polluting groundwater. The government backed down.
The bishop “went on horseback to the most remote parts of the mountains to visit the sick and celebrate Mass,” said Emiliano Chamorro, a journalist who accompanied him on several trips. “People love him. He’s a real pastor.