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House panel Chairman Chris Smith demands release of imprisoned Nicaraguan Catholic bishop


House panel Chairman Chris Smith demands release of imprisoned Nicaraguan Catholic bishop

House lawmakers are urging Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to release Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez, the only remaining cleric still jailed in the country.

“Bishop Álvarez is an innocent man enduring unspeakable suffering,” Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s global health, global human rights and international organizations subcommittee said during a Thursday hearing of the panel. “His life and ministry have been an inspiring example of compassion, kindness, integrity and selfless service.” 

Leader of the Matagalpa diocese, Monsignor Álvarez was placed under a de facto house arrest in August 2022 after he criticized the Ortega regime’s human rights record and its closure of several Catholic radio stations in the country. 

In February, a court in Managua sentenced the cleric to 26 years in prison after he rejected an offer to be exiled to the United States. He was charged with treason, undermining national integrity and spreading false news, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom reported. Monsignor Álvarez was also stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship and fined.

Two exiled prisoners of conscience, Nicaraguan Catholics whose identities were concealed to protect their relatives, told the House subcommittee that the regime of Mr. Ortega and his vice president and wife Rosario Murillo has targeted the church.

“We were accused of being members of an organized crime gang and that the leaders were the bishops, and above all, they said [Monsignor] Rolando,” one of the prisoners said. “I was interrogated and I was accused of giving hate speeches, of organizing an uprising. I was accused of undermining the dignity of the state and of Nicaragua, of spreading false news.”

A second exiled prisoner told the panel, “They blackmailed me and threatened the lives of my relatives, because they wanted me to declare that the bishop was a member of an organization that wanted to promote a coup d’état against Daniel Ortega and that he received money from the U.S. government and the European Union.”

Rep. Maria Elvira Salazar, Florida Republican, also denounced the bishop’s imprisonment.

“What is inconceivable is that Daniel Ortega meddles or interferes with the Catholic Church, something that not even the dictator Somoza was willing to do,” Ms. Salazar said. “He’s holding as a prisoner one of the most important members of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, for more than a year now.

“The question is, how does Ortega know that he can do this to somebody of such importance in an institution that is twice as popular and has more [public] confidence than the Ortega regime?”

Although Mr. Smith has worked to keep the case in the public eye, the Biden administration’s position is less defined. In August, the State Department imposed visa restrictions on 100 Nicaraguan officials, partly because of the cleric’s imprisonment, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the time.

But asked about the Álvarez case at a White House briefing Wednesday, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “I’m not tracking that particular case.”

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