In times of distress, people look to their leaders, seeking beacons of courage and fidelity to the truth. Such is the legacy of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, a Roman Catholic priest who stood in staunch, but peaceful, opposition to the communist regime in Poland. Father Jerzy, celebrated by the Polish people on Oct. 19, is in the process of being recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church for his witness to truth.
While perhaps not immediately visible, similar stories of faith under fire are happening across the globe today. In situations of acute persecution, the human spirit is resilient, and leaders rise up to be standard-bearers of truth. In Nicaragua, the state of persecution is dire. The country has been in a state of turmoil since April 2018 with the eruption of civil unrest against the repressive Ortega regime. The regime, intent on suppressing all challenging authorities, has set its sights on the Catholic Church in the form of attacks on religious leaders, religious orders, and places of worship, in addition to Catholic institutions and media outlets.
Reminiscent of Father Jerzy, who often called the faithful to peaceful dissent in his Sunday sermons, Bishop Rolando Álvarez felt the duty as a Catholic pastor to denounce the actions of the Ortega regime. Over the last few years, the bishop has risen to prominence for his consistent witness to the inviolable nature of human dignity in light of the regime’s repression, which often took the form of sermons to church congregants eager to hear a message of hope and truth.
In one such sermon, he prayed: “May He (the Lord of Miracles) grant us the miracle of living in peace, of living in justice, of living in freedom, of living without this forced migration that is bleeding us dry as a country and is disintegrating our families. … We beg you, Lord of Miracles, to let us live in Nicaragua in peace, without political prisoners, without exiles, without people in hiding.”
The Bishop did not hesitate to speak the truth regarding the inviolable nature of human dignity, telling his congregants: “These circles of power sometimes think that they are the ones in charge, that they are the ones who decide over the people. … From God who has made us in His image and likeness and from His son who has redeemed us, comes our dignity and our inner freedom that no one can take away from us.”
A Sham Trial
For his steadfast stance against repression, Bishop Álvarez was charged with “undermining national integrity” and “propagation of false news.” On Feb. 10, he was convicted of these charges, along with “aggravated obstruction of functions” and “disobedience of contempt for authority.” Reflective of the state of affairs in Nicaragua, Bishop Álvarez was convicted in a sham trial, which he didn’t even know was happening. He was denied his lawyer of choice, and later, his lawyer was barred from accessing essential information about his case. Following his conviction, in which he also was fined and stripped of his citizenship, the bishop, now labeled a “traitor,” was denied an appeal on similar sham grounds. He currently is at the start of a 26-year prison sentence.
Having refused an offer of exile to the United States before his trial, the bishop’s story caught international attention. He is nominated for the European Parliament’s highest human rights award. And on Sept. 12, an urgent request for action was filed at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by ADF International. Currently imprisoned and deprived of contact with his family and lawyers, Bishop Álvarez’s state of health and well-being are unknown, prompting international concern. Action from the commission, which is tasked with the protection of human rights in Latin America, is imperative, as there are no effective avenues for justice in Nicaragua.
No one should suffer at the hands of the state for peacefully voicing his convictions. What has happened to Bishop Álvarez is a clear violation of the human rights to free speech and religious freedom, guaranteed to every person. Further, the targeting of religious leaders sends a clear signal to ordinary people that religious expression will not be tolerated. International action is urgently needed to free Bishop Álvarez and bring an end to persecution in Nicaragua. Every person has the right to live and speak the truth, and we are all indebted to the bishop for his witness.