Nicaraguan police raided the residence of a Roman Catholic bishop critical of President Daniel Ortega’s administration on Friday, detaining him and several other clergy in a dramatic escalation of tensions between the church and a government intolerant of dissent.

The raids took place before dawn after Nicaraguan authorities accused Matagalpa Bishop Rolando lvarez of “organizing violent groups” and inciting them to “commit acts of hatred against the population”.

President Daniel Ortega’s government has moved systematically against voices of dissent, arresting dozens of opposition leaders last year, including seven potential candidates to challenge him for the presidency. He was sentenced this year to prison in speedy trials that were closed to the public.

Congress, dominated by Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, has ordered the closure of more than 1,000 NGOs, including Mother Teresa’s charity.

Early Friday, the Diocese of Matagalpa posted on social media, “#SOS #Urgente. At this time the National Police has entered the Episcopal Rectory of our Matagalpa Diocese.”

The National Police later confirmed the detention in a statement, saying that the operation was carried out to allow “to bring the citizens and families of Matagalpa to normalcy”.

“With great patience, discretion and a sense of responsibility, a positive communication from the Diocese of Matagalpa was awaited for several days, which never materialised,” the statement said. “With the continuance of volatile and provocative activities, the operation of the above public order became necessary.”

It did not mention specific allegations.

The police statement said Alvarez was being held at a house in Managua, where he was allowed to visit relatives and Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes.

Police said the others who were taken with Alvarez – they did not specify who or how many – were still being processed.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned the detention and called for the immediate release of those captured.

Edwin Roman, a parish priest from Nicaragua exiled in the United States, said via Twitter: “My God! How disgraceful, they have taken Monsignor Rolando lvarez with their priests.”

The streets around the cathedral in Matagalpa were relatively empty on Friday. Some parishioners prayed inside, where a picture of Alvarez rests on the robe of the figure of Jesus Christ.

Maria Lacayo said she is “deeply saddened because we know that our bishop is innocent and an outstanding man.”

“We all love him very much because he is there for all of us and it is a great injustice to him. But as Catholics we leave everything in the hands of God,” he said.

Alvarez has been a prominent religious voice in discussions of Nicaragua’s future since 2018, when a wave of protests against Ortega’s government led to widespread crackdowns on opponents.

“We expect a series of electoral reforms, structural changes in electoral authority – free, fair and transparent elections, international observation without conditions,” Alvarez said a month after the protests began. “Effectively democratizing the country.”

At the time, a priest in the Diocese of Alvarez was wounded in the arm with shrapnel while trying to separate protesters and police in Matagalpa.

Alvarez has continued to make such calls for democracy for the past four years, which has angered Ortega and Murillo.

Manuel Orozco, a Nicaraguan expert at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, said Alvarez posed a threat to Ortega as an obstacle and symbol.

“Nicaraguans are very loyal to the church,” he said. “In a poll I conducted last year, 70% of Nicaraguans say that for them, the political opinion of religious authority at a national or narrow level was important in shaping their political views.”

“(Alvarez’s) legend, it’s based on the religious script, the biblical script about resisting the oppressor,” Orozco said. “And that doesn’t indicate incitement to violence or calls for resistance, but what he says is harassment.”

Orozco said the government was pressuring the church not to bring about a “proportionate response” by the international community. “And so they continue to push the envelope because they don’t see the lack of a military offensive, nothing is going to stop them.”

Friday’s arrest follows weeks of heightened tension between the church and Ortega’s government, which has had a complicated relationship with Nicaragua’s dominant religion and its leaders for more than four decades.

The former Marxist guerrilla enraged the Vatican in the 1980s but gradually forged an alliance with the church as he went on to seek the presidency in 2007 after a long period out of power. Now once again he seems to be seeing political gains in direct confrontation.

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