TODAY NICARAGUA – “Goodbye my Nicaragua! It hurts me to breathe in the front country,” wrote Catholic Church priest Uriel Vallejos, once he was safe in Costa Rican territory.
Vallejos remained besieged by the police for three days at the beginning of August in the Divina Misericordia church, in the northern municipality of Sébaco and, after circumventing the surveillance, crossed the southern border to arrive first in Costa Rica and then in Italy, where he is currently.
The police broke into the church of Father Vallejos on Monday, August 1, supposedly to confiscate the equipment. The priest took refuge along with other collaborators in the parish house where he survived 72 hours eating bread, water and yogurt, and left at one in the morning on Thursday of that week after an alleged agreement to leave the country.
“Leaving like this is traumatic. It is an inhumane condition, but I had to do it to safeguard my life,” Vallejos told Mosaico, a digital magazine. “I came with just two changes of clothes, nothing more, and at one point, on the way, I had to take off my shirt… by God’s grace, as we say, like every Nicaraguan, like every migrant.”
At least six priests have crossed the southern Nicaraguan border, through blind spots, into Costa Rica in the last month, fleeing the repression that the Daniel Ortega regime has unleashed in Nicaragua against the Catholic Church. However, the number of religious exiles could be much higher, because most leave in silence.
The Nicaraguan dictatorship keeps the Bishop of Matagalpa, Monsignor Rolando Álvarez, in a de facto “house prison” by the regime, whom the police initiated an investigation for “incitement to hatred”, without until now, 20 days later, any legal proceedings against him.
Eight clerics who accompanied Álvarez, including four priests, were taken to the El Chipote police prison, a well-known torture center where the regime sends most of its political prisoners. Two other priests have been convicted of common crimes.
It is a silent exodus that the Nicaraguan Catholic hierarchy has not made official. On the contrary, Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, archbishop of Managua, in statements to the EFE news agency complained that the Nicaraguan press publishes “uncorroborated” information about priests who have left the country “and sometimes they are lies.”
The exodus of priests has been known, however, through publications that some priests make on social networks once they are safe. Others remain silent out of obedience to their superiors or for fear of reprisals against their relatives in Nicaragua.
Infobae learned of the case of two priests in Costa Rica who asked for security reasons that their names not be mentioned. The human rights group Nunca Más, based in Costa Rica, reported having documented the case of a priest and knowing of other cases of clerics who have left the country to protect their freedom and their lives.
“Dear brothers, from the depths of my heart I have loved my country, but I inform you that due to the madness of servile and fanatical people, I have had to leave and abandon the land that saw me born, I ask for your prayers,” said on August 31 on Twitter the deacon of the diocese of Granada, Carlos P. Mata.
“We realize that we are in a failed state when the drug traffickers and criminals roam super free and the priests and churches threatened by the police,” Mata had written four days earlier.
Other priests were already in exile as a result of the repression of the Nicaraguan regime, including Monsignor Silvio Báez, auxiliary bishop of Managua, who now lives in Miami, and left Nicaragua at the request of Pope Francis on April 23, 2019.
“I feel sad. My heart is broken by the pain of leaving Nicaragua, but I am serene and at peace knowing that I am always available to serve the Lord and the Church wherever I am asked,” Báez declared that day.
As a result of the resurgence of the repression against the Catholic Church that began on August 1 of this year, “the priests hid and as soon as they could they left (the country) because the Church is not being able to defend them,” considers Jesús Tefel, a member of the opposition organization Blue and White Unit (UNAB).
“There is no respect for the cassock. The Prosecutor’s Office is setting up cases of common crimes against critical priests and political cases are being set up for the most public figures,” he added.
The current persecution of Catholic clerics recalls the Sandinista repression of the 1980s, when the revolutionary regime assassinated, staged incriminating assemblies, expelled and sent clerics into exile. One of the most notorious cases was that of the bishop of Juigalpa, Monsignor Pablo Vega, who in July 1986 was taken by force, in a military helicopter, to the Honduran border, where he was left to his fate.
Monsignor Rolando Álvarez himself, today a political prisoner of the regime, was one of the thousands of Nicaraguan exiles when he was a young seminarian in the 1980s.
For Tefel, the priests became a political target at this time because they were the last critical public voice left in Nicaragua. “The priests have access to the pulpit, they touch on issues that transcend, that are essential for society. It is inevitable not to touch the issues of repression and human rights violations, they have been critical of the status and that makes them the only voice against the dictatorial regime.
“By silencing the church they are publicly silencing one hundred percent of society,” he adds. “You can continue to criticize in private but in public, with the church (silenced), they hope there will be no more opposing voices.”