EU bishops demand release of clergy detained in Nicaragua

ROME (AP) — European bishops on Wednesday demanded the immediate release of Nicaraguan clergy detained in the government’s crackdown on the Catholic Church, saying they have been falsely accused and are being subjected to unjust persecution.

Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich, president of the Commission of the Bishops Conferences of the European Union, said European bishops would do “everything in their power” to press EU institutions to work to liberate the detainees.

Hollerich’s letter to the head of the Nicaraguan bishops conference came a day after a Nicaraguan court sentenced four Catholic priests to 10 years in prison on conspiracy charges stemming from long-standing government allegations that the church backed illegal pro-democracy protests. A fifth priest was sentenced on the same charges Sunday.

It was the latest chapter in a crackdown on the church by President Daniel Ortega.

Hollerich’s letter came in sharp contrast to the relative silence from the Vatican, which did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment on the court sentences. The Holy See has kept relatively quiet about the Nicaraguan crackdown, believing that speaking out would only inflame tensions further.

Pope Francis last spoke out publicly after Nicaraguan police raided the home of Matagalpa Bishop Rolando Álvarez in August. A few weeks later, during a press conference returning from Kazakhstan, he confirmed a dialogue was under way with the government, but has said nothing since.

Alvarez had been a key religious voice in discussions of Nicaragua’s future since 2018, when a wave of protests against Ortega’s government led to a sweeping crackdown on opponents. Alvarez is under house arrest on charges of conspiracy and “damaging the Nicaraguan government and society,” and is set to be sentenced soon.

In the letter, Hollerich said the government’s actions were violating religious freedom.

“We are closely following the development of the situation in Nicaragua, marked by the persecution of the Catholic Church and its faithful,” he wrote. “We join the voices crying out over the injustice to which our brothers in Nicaragua are being subjected and demand their immediate release.”