MEXICO CITY (AP) – Pope Francis expressed sadness and concern Sunday at the news that Bishop Rolando Alvarez, an outspoken critic of the Nicaraguan government, has been sentenced to 26 years in prison.
It’s just the latest move against the Catholic Church and government opponents, and it comes amid growing concerns about Álvarez.
“The news that came from Nicaragua made me a little sad,” the pontiff said, expressing love and concern at the traditional Sunday gathering in St. Peter’s Square.
He called on the faithful to pray for responsible politicians “to open their hearts”.
Álvarez was sentenced on Friday after refusing to board a flight to the United States with 222 other prisoners, all opponents of President Daniel Ortega. In addition to the prison sentence, Álvarez was stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship.
The bishop said that if he gets on the plane, he is admitting he is guilty of a crime he never committed, according to a person close to Álvarez who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
“Let them go and I’ll stay to serve my sentence,” he said Alvarez told him.
So far, no one has been able to contact Álvarez, or confirm for himself where he is and whether he is safe, he said.
That concern was echoed in Nicaragua’s capital, when Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes said someone asked him what they could do for Alvarez.
“Pray, that is our strength,” Brenes told the crowd at the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. “Pray that the Lord will give him strength, that he will give him judgment in all his actions.”
The comments from Pope Francis and Cardinal Brenes on Sunday were the first made public by the church about the expulsion of the prisoners — several priests boarded the flight — and Álvarez’s sentence.
Ortega ordered the mass release of political leaders, priests, students and activists considered political prisoners and put some of them on a flight to Washington on Thursday. Ortega said Álvarez refused to board without being able to consult with other bishops.
The Nicaraguan president called Álvarez’s refusal an “absurd thing.” Álvarez, who was kept under house arrest, was then taken to the nearby Modelo prison.
Ahead of Ortega’s re-election in November 2021, Nicaraguan authorities arrested seven potential opposition presidential candidates to clear the field. The government shut down hundreds of NGOs that Ortega accused of taking foreign funds and using them to destabilize his government.
The former guerrilla has long had a strained relationship with the Catholic Church. But he targeted it more directly last year in his campaign to silence dissenting voices.
In March, Ortega expelled the papal nuncio, the Vatican’s top diplomat. Later, the government shut down several radio stations in Álvarez’s Diocese of Matagalpa ahead of municipal elections. Álvarez was arrested in August along with several other priests and laymen, accused of subverting the government and spreading false information.
The church’s reaction to the government’s increasingly aggressive behavior has been muted, apparently in an attempt not to inflame tensions.
On Saturday, several thousand Ortega supporters marched through the capital in support of the expulsion of opposition prisoners. Although some seemed sincere in their support, the government has developed a reputation for kicking people out by forcing civil servants to attend.
Outside Managua’s cathedral on Sunday, it was clear that the priest’s long sentence and revocation of citizenship had upset people in the still largely Roman Catholic country.
Jorge Paladino, a 49-year-old architect, said he felt “disappointed, upset, horrified”. He said that those expelled will always be Nicaraguans, no matter what they are told.
Marija Buitrago, a 61-year-old pensioner, spoke quietly but with exasperation.
“They took their nationality in a terrible way as if they were gods and could take from someone where they live, where they were born,” Buitrago said. “They cannot take Nicaraguan blood. They can’t stand it. But they do what they want.”
Associated Press writer Christopher Sherman in Mexico City contributed to this report.