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Persecution of Catholics in Nicaragua: The Complicated Role of the Pope in International Politics

Lachlan Forster

Source: BBC

For the 45% of Nicaraguan citizens who follow the Roman Catholic Church, pursuing their faith has become extremely difficult in the past five years. Nicaragua’s infamous President of over fifteen years, Daniel Ortega, has purged all potential challengers to his authority by imprisoning journalists, proclaiming opposition politicians as ‘enemies of the state’ and stripping rivals of their Nicaraguan nationality. Now Ortega, a textbook authoritarian, has turned his attention from political to spiritual challengers by targeting the Holy See and the Catholic Church within Nicaragua.

The Crackdown

Nicaragua is a Central American nation governed by President Daniel Ortega, the leader of the socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front, which came to power in the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 and combatted the US-backed Contra insurgency throughout the 1980’s. Serving as President since 2006, Ortega has drawn wide-spread attention for his brutal oppression of Nicaraguan citizens, including allegations of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions and torture. An estimated 85% of Nicaraguans subscribe to Christianity, 2.7 million of whom are practising Catholics.

Throughout the social security reform protests that gripped Nicaragua in 2018, eventually leaving 300 people dead, the Catholic Church within the nation maintained a broadly impartial position by advocating for negotiations between all sides and initially being called upon by Ortega to act as a neutral party in mediations. However, individual Nicaraguan priests, such as Bishop Ronaldo Álvarez, began to call on Ortega to resign, criticising his human rights record. Further, he provided a shelter for protestors to escape the wrath of the Nicaraguan authorities. Eventually, Pope Francis followed by releasing a statement encouraging the “unnecessary bloodshed be avoided and that open questions be resolved peacefully and with a sense of responsibility”.

To Ortega, the Pope’s implication that “open questions” lingered over Nicaragua’s politics was seen as a suggestion that his Presidency was not entirely legitimate. With Pope Francis’ statement, the Catholic Church entered the crosshairs of the ruthless dictator, who began a crackdown on the church’s institutions under the guise of national security. Catholic schools, universities, radio stations and charities were shut down, with missionaries expelled and Bishops arrested. The aforementioned Bishop Ronaldo Álvarez was arrested on charges of ‘conspiracy’ and sentenced in January 2023 to 26 years of imprisonment, along with being stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship and likely enduring torture. Two elderly Costa Rican nuns, who had been running a nursing home, were deported from Nicaragua. Even during Easter, the most sacred of celebrations in the church’s calendar, Ortega saw to it that public celebrations and traditional processions were banned from taking place.

Pope Francis has not been silent on this issue. Earlier this year, in the wake of Álvarez’s arrest, Pope Francis described Ortega as “unbalanced” and equated Nicaragua under his rule to “the Communist dictatorship of 1917 and the Hitlerian dictatorship of 1935”. Ortega’s response to this was swift, with his Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggesting a “suspension of diplomatic relations” between Nicaragua and the Vatican, resulting in the Holy See’s representative moving to Costa Rica on March 18th. With formal relations between the countries on a seemingly permanent freeze, the Catholics of Nicaragua remain in a tremendously vulnerable state.

The Catholic Church in Geopolitics

The Lateran Treaty of 1929 established Vatican City as the world’s smallest country, as the state of Italy and subsequently the international community recognised “the sovereignty of the Holy See in international matters as an inherent attribute in conformity with its traditions and the requirements of its mission to the world”. This agreement allows for the church to do what it desires to spread the message of the Catholic faith internationally, but requires the Vatican, its diplomats and the Pope to be “invariably and in every event considered as neutral”. This requirement leads to sometimes controversial statements from the Pope to the average onlooker. Pope Francis’ comment that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is fuelled by “imperial interests, not just of the Russian empire, but of empires from elsewhere" needs to be contextualised. As the world’s smallest sovereign nation, the Vatican’s existence relies on its absolute neutrality in conflict, particularly as either side of a war could have a considerable number of Catholics fighting. The core of the Vatican’s diplomacy is to build bridges for peace, rather than assign blame.

The exception to this rule, however, is when Catholics are the absolute victims of persecution. Pope John Paul II was actively anti-communist, especially in his home nation of Poland where the church came under heavy restrictions and censorship during the period of Soviet occupation. The 90% of Poles who subscribed to Catholicism were discouraged from practising their faith. Pope Benedict XVI likewise condemned “religiously motivated terrorism” in nations like Egypt and Pakistan, which had victimised these states’ catholic minorities. While the Vatican has less than 500 citizens, the Pope advocates and speaks for 1.3 billion people.

This is the crux of Ortega’s crackdown. To him, the people of Nicaragua cannot have two leaders, one political and spiritual, particularly when these two categories so often intertwine. If the teachings of the Catholic Church and the comments of the Pope differ from what Ortega wishes, then he will see to it that the Catholic Church is restricted. But severing the connection between Catholics and the Vatican is a far harder task than Ortega might think. It cannot be underestimated how crucial the desire for a deeper connection to the church was in toppling the Communist regime in the aforementioned Poland. Further, Nicaragua’s surrounding Latin American neighbours have made clear their displeasure of Ortega’s hostile actions against the Holy See, particularly Brazil whose population is 64.6% Catholic.

Potential Solutions

The Holy See has been willing to cooperate with traditionally hostile nations in recent years to ensure that followers may express their faith safely. The Vatican has worked with the CCP to ensure that Catholics in China, Hong Kong and Macau can openly worship. However, it had to make tremendous concessions to the state regarding the appointment of bishops and the limits of the church’s teachings, due to the massive emphasis on “patriotism” being pushed by the Chinese government.

It is unlikely that the Vatican will be willing to cooperate with Ortega in the same way. His regime has already come under pressure from human rights organisations and Latin American international bodies, and the ongoing protests against his Sandinista regime demonstrates a present desire from a notable portion of the population for change. The Vatican has little in the way of resources to target Nicaragua, outside of advocacy from international bodies. This situation may boil down to a waiting game where ongoing international pressure encourages Ortega to reconsider his stance on the church or pushback from the Nicaraguan people forces his hand.


Lachlan Forster is a young writer studying at the University of Melbourne, majoring in International Relations and History. Lachlan is a New Colombo Plan Scholar, studying in Singapore and Malaysia. He has been published in the Herald Sun, the Chariot Journal of History and Farrago Student Magazine.



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