Even with the recent release of imprisoned priests, Ortega’s regime continues to target Christian organizations with an “absolute intolerance for dissent.”
Bad news has been the norm for Catholics in Nicaragua, where clergy and church groups have been frequent targets of a wide-ranging crackdown for years. But on January 14, 2024, they received a happy surprise: The government unexpectedly released two bishops, 15 priests and two seminary students from prison and expelled them to the Vatican.
They also included priests detained by President Daniel Ortega’s government in late December 2023 for expressing solidarity with Álvarez and other political prisoners. Days later, Pope Francis criticized the regime in his New Year’s message and then called for “respectful diplomatic dialogue.”
Nearly six years after mass protests erupted against Ortega and then were brutally repressed, these prisoner releases offer some hope to Nicaragua’s opposition. As my research has shown, however, the Ortega regime is unrelenting in trying to retain power, which suggests this is not necessarily a turning point. In fact, the government reportedly took yet another priest into custody on January 16.
Why target the church?
Ortega first led Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, after his left-wing revolutionary organization, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN, spearheaded the overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. In the 1980s, the FSLN clashed with the Vatican and church hierarchy over the group’s socialist politics, even as many poorer Nicaraguan Catholics embraced them.
When Ortega took office again in 2007, however, he did so with the blessing of …