Pope Francis on Monday denounced a growing crackdown on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua by the government of President Daniel Ortega.
Twelve priests and a bishop have been detained in recent days in the Central American country, where Ortega began repressing the Church after national demonstrations in 2018.
“I am following with concern what is happening in Nicaragua, where bishops and priests have been deprived of their freedom,” Francis said in his weekly Sunday message and blessing in St. Peter’s Square.
“I express my closeness in prayer to them, their families and the entire church in Nicaragua … I hope the path of dialogue can be followed to overcome difficulties.”
Since the 2018 protests, Ortega has accused priests of organising themselves and orchestrating a coup. The bishops had asked the president for justice for those who died during the protests, and early elections.
In 2023, after the government closed a Jesuit-run university in Managua, the worldwide leader of the religious order accused Ortega of attempting to “suffocate” the Catholic Church and civic institutions.
Last February, Bishop Rolando Alvarez, an Ortega critic, was convicted of treason, stripped of his citizenship and sentenced to 26 years in prison without a trial.
The Vatican embassy in Nicaragua was ordered closed in last March. The Vatican nuncio, or ambassador, was effectively expelled in 2022.
Vatican officials have told Reuters privately that they see the conflict in Nicaragua as one of the worst since the Cold War, when many communist countries in Eastern Europe persecuted the Church.
Ortega’s administration has been increasingly isolated internationally since he began cracking down heavily on dissent following street protests in 2018.