Nicaraguan bishop fasts to protest police harassment

FILE - Rolando Alvarez, Bishop of Matagalpa, attends a press conference regarding the Roman Catholic Church's agreeing to act as "mediator and witness" in a national dialogue between members of civil society and the government in Managua, Nicaragua, May 3, 2018. Alvarez began an indefinite fast Friday, May 20, 2022 inside a church to protest increasing harassment from national police, who he said followed him throughout the entire previous day. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File) (Moises Castillo, Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MEXICO CITY – A Roman Catholic bishop in Nicaragua began an “indefinite fast” Friday inside a church to protest increasing harassment from national police, who he said followed him throughout the entire previous day.

Rolando Álvarez, the bishop of Matagalpa and a fierce critic of President Daniel Ortega’s government, said in a video published by his diocese that police had even breached his “circle of family privacy” while he visited a niece.

Ortega’s government arrested dozens of political opposition leaders, including most of the potential candidates, in the months before his re-election to a fourth consecutive term last year. His government has shut down dozens of nongovernmental organizations that he accuses of working on behalf of foreign interests to destabilize his government. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have been chased into exile.

The Catholic church remains influential, but has not escaped Ortega’s wrath. He has accused its priests of being “terrorists and coup plotters” and blamed them for participating in his “failed overthrow.”

Álvarez was one of the bishops who supported demonstrators in massive street protests that broke out in April 2018 and became a call for Ortega to step down. Since then, Álvarez’s sermons often criticize the government and demand the release of political prisoners.

At least 355 people died in the government’s repression of those protests, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“Today I have been followed all day by the Sandinista police, since the morning through these hours of the night, at every moment, during all of my day’s movements,” Álvarez said in the video Thursday night.

Álvarez said he confronted his pursuers and was told they were just “following orders.” Rather than back down, the police followed him into the night “putting at risk the safety of my family.” That was when he decided to shelter in a church in the southeast of the capital Managua and begin his fast.

The bishop said he would fast until the police informed church leaders they would respect the privacy of his family. “The insecurity of this country is precisely the police, those who make us feel unsafe with that persecution,” he said.

The police had not responded publicly to Álvarez’s complaints. In recent months, the bishop has denounced harassment and threats from Sandinista activists against himself and his closest collaborators.

Álvarez received support Friday from Silvio Báez, the former auxiliary bishop of Managua who left Nicaragua in 2018 after receiving death threats.

Other priests reported similar harassment this week. In the northern city of Sebaco, Rev. Uriel Vallejos said he was photographed and besieged by police while going around the city.

Rev. Harving Padilla, the priest for a parish in Masaya, south of the capital, said police kept him under constant surveillance. Police arrested opposition leader Yubrank Suazo of the Civic Alliance Tuesday, after he denounced the harassment Padilla suffered. Suazo was previously jailed in 2018.

In early May, Nicaragua’s congress, which is dominated by Ortega’s party, said it was considering jailing priests who questioned the government. Cardenal Leopoldo Brenes, Managua archbishop, said at the time that the church was not the “enemy” of the government and that he would continue “praying for those who slander us.”