VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis on Sunday expressed sadness and worry at the news that Bishop Rolando Álvarez, an outspoken critic of the Nicaraguan government, had been sentenced to 26 years in prison.
It's just the latest move against the Catholic Church and government opponents, and comes amid growing concern for Álvarez.
“The news that arrived from Nicaragua has saddened me no little,’’ the pontiff said, expressing both his love and concern at a traditional Sunday gathering in St. Peter’s Square.
He called on the faithful to pray for the politicians responsible “to open their hearts.”
Álvarez was sentenced Friday, after refusing to get on a flight to the United States with 222 other prisoners, all opponents of President Daniel Ortega. In addition to his prison term, Álvarez was stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship.
The bishop said if he boarded the plane, it would be he was admitting he was guilty to a crime he never committed, according to a person close to Álvarez who asked not the be identified out of fear of reprisal.
"Let them go and I’ll stay and serve out their sentence," he said that Álvarez told him.
Until now, no one has been able to contact Álvarez, nor confirm for themselves where he is or if he is safe, he said.
That concern was also echoed in Nicaragua’s capital, when Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes said someone had asked him what they could do for Álvarez.
"Pray, that is our strength,” Brenes told those gathered inside the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. “Pray that the Lord gives him strength, gives him judgment in all of his actions.”
The comments by Pope Francis and Cardinal Brenes on Sunday were the first made publicly by the church about the expulsion of the prisoners — several priests did board the flight — and of Álvarez's sentence.
Ortega ordered the mass release of political leaders, priests, students and activists widely considered political prisoners and had some of them put on a flight to Washington Thursday. Ortega said Álvarez refused to board without being able to consult with other bishops.
Nicaragua’s president called Álvarez’s refusal “an absurd thing.” Álvarez, who had been held under house arrest, was then taken to the nearby Modelo prison.
In the run-up to Ortega's re-election in November 2021, Nicaraguan authorities arrested seven potential opposition presidential candidates to clear the field. The government closed hundreds of nongovernmental organizations that Ortega has accused of taking foreign funding and using it to destabilize his government.
The former guerrilla fighter has long had a tense relationship with the Catholic Church. But he targeted it more directly last year in his campaign to extinguish voices of dissent.
Ortega kicked out the papal nuncio, the Vatican's top diplomat in March. Later, the government shut down several radio stations in Álvarez's Matagalpa diocese ahead of municipal elections. Álvarez was arrested in August along with several other priests and lay people, accused with undermining the government and spreading false information.
The church's response to the government's increasingly aggressive behavior has been muted, apparently in an attempt to not inflame tensions.
On Saturday, a few thousand Ortega supporters marched in the capital in a show of support for the expulsion of the opposition prisoners. While some seemed genuine in their support, the government has earned a reputation for turning out people by making government employees attend.
Outside Managua's cathedral Sunday, it was clear that the lengthy sentence for a priest and stripping critics of their citizenship rankled people in the still heavily Roman Catholic country.
Jorge Paladino, a 49-year-old architect, said he felt “disillusioned, upset, dismayed.” He said those who were expelled will always be Nicaraguans, regardless of what they are told.
María Buitrago, a 61-year-old retiree, spoke softly but with indignation.
“They took their nationality in a horrible way as if they are gods and can take from someone where they live, where they were born,” Buitrago said. “They can't take Nicaraguan blood. They can't take it. But they do what they please.”
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.