Bishop Alvarez: A Modern-Day Champion for Religious Freedom

By Larkin Stojka

The following essay was selected as the third-place winner of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2014 religious liberty essay contest on the theme “Witnesses to Freedom.” The essay contest was co-sponsored by the OSV Institute for Catholic Innovation. For her essay, Larkin Stojka was awarded a $500 scholarship.

Growing up in a country where religious freedom is a fundamental right, it is often difficult to imagine being persecuted or suffering for one’s religious beliefs. Advocates of religious freedom and martyrs seem to have lived in the distant past, with the stories of their lives reaching legendary status. A closer examination of current world events, however, shows that there are still witnesses to freedom amongst us.

Daniel Ortega first came to power in Nicaragua as a member of the Sandinista junta in 1979 and served as president from 1984 to 1990. He lost re-election in 1990, but remained influential in national politics. In 2006, he ran for, and was elected president once again, taking office in 2007. Ortega’s initial social reform policies made him popular among the lower class, but he lost favor with the middle class due to his regime’s increasingly authoritarian rule. In 2018, Ortega’s social security reforms led to widespread protests and rioting. Police and paramilitary groups used violence to end the protests, resulting in the deaths of over 300 Nicaraguans (Brittanica, 2024).

Leaders of the Catholic Church in Nicaragua were outraged by the government’s treatment of demonstrators and vocalized their support for the protestors. Priests opened their parishes to the demonstrators, in order to provide medical care and to hide them from the police and paramilitary groups. In response, the Ortega regime condemned church leaders as “terrorists,” used the police to harass church leaders and members, and interrupted church festivities (Agren, 2022).

Bishop Rolando Jose Alvarez Lagos has been one of the most outspoken critics of the Ortega regime. Bishop Alvarez was born on November 27, 1966. He was ordained in 1994 and was appointed Bishop of Matagalpa by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011. He became the apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Estelí in 2022.

After the 2018 protests, Bishop Alvarez used his position to condemn the government’s war against civil rights. He spread the word of Ortega’s atrocities among the faithful.  In response, the regime increased police monitoring of churches, photographed church attendees, prevented priests from officiating Mass, and banned religious processions. Parishioners, too scared to attend Mass, have stayed at home. The government also shut down Catholic schools and Catholic media outlets. Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity order was forced out of the country (Bermúdez et al., 2023).

In the face of such opposition and threats to his own personal safety, Bishop Alvaraz remained steadfast in his beliefs in support of religious freedom and civil rights. In May 2022, he went on a hunger strike in order to raise awareness of what was happening in the country. In a move attempting to silence his voice and prevent him from speaking out against Ortega, police raided Bishop Alvarez’s home in August 2022 and placed him under house arrest. Other outspoken clergy were arrested or went into hiding.  Many priests fled the country, were expelled or exiled, or were imprisoned.

In December 2022, after remaining on house arrest for four months, the government finally presented charges against Bishop Alvarez, stating that he had committed conspiracy against the government and spread propaganda. He was transferred to a high security prison.  Early in 2023, Bishop Alvarez was convicted of these crimes, sentenced to twenty-six years in prison, declared a traitor, and stripped of his citizenship. In February of that year, 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners (including five priests, a deacon, and two seminarians) were exiled to the United States (Zengarini, 2023). Bishop Alvarez was supposed to be among them, but he refused to go. In a film-worthy dramatic moment, Alvarez “stopped at the stairs leading to the airplane and said, ‘Let the others be free, I will endure their punishment’” (Peralta, 2023).

In a recent development in January 2024, Bishop Alvarez and eighteen other priests were flown to Rome after negotiations with the Vatican. They will remain in the Vatican as “guests of the Holy See” (U.S. News and World Report, 2024a). It remains to be seen what will happen to other jailed dissidents.

In a country that is approximately fifty percent Catholic, the silencing of the clergy has had a chilling effect on the Nicaraguan people’s ability to fight back against the oppressive government (U.S. News and World Report, 2024b). In many rural areas of the country, the church offered the only social and political sanctuary for local residents. It was a place to convene and speak freely without fear or condemnation. Dismantling the church leadership has allowed Ortega to silence dissidents and gain total control of the country (Bermúdez et al., 2020). In fact, one Ortega critic, Martha Molina (a Nicaraguan lawyer who fled to the United States), believes that the regime “wants to completely eliminate the Catholic faith, because they haven’t succeeded in making the church kneel before them” (U.S. News and World Report, 2024b).

The expulsion of the Missionaries of Charity, which serves the poorest of the poor and provides numerous services (including housing, education, medical care, and social assistance) has left many without aide. The social services that Catholic churches provide to their parishioners and surrounding communities have also been impacted by the government’s oppression. The effect of the crackdown on the Catholic Church has had a negative effect on the people of Nicaragua.

The situation in Nicaragua is very fluid and is still evolving. It remains to be seen how far the government will go in order to oppress religious freedom. As it stands now, many religious leaders have gone into hiding or have been exiled, and many parishioners are too scared to attend worship services. Bishop Rolando Alvarez is a witness to freedom who has not been scared into silence. He stood for religious and political freedoms while many others cowed in fear. He surrendered his own personal safety and remained in prison for a year instead, refusing to leave his countrymen. Bishop Alvarez teaches us to act in a just and righteous manner and to always remain faithful. His commitment to God never wavered; when his church was surrounded by security forces at the time of his arrest, Bishop Alvarez exited the church, and told the police that “he would be ‘Frightened and on [his] knees, only before God’” (Simon, 2023).


Agren, David. (2022, December 25). Nicaragua cracks down on Catholic Church. The Financial Times. Retrieved February 13, 2024, from

Bermúdez, A. F., Kurmanaev, A., & Mendoza, Y. (2022, August 23). Nicaragua silences its last outspoken critics: Catholic priests. The New York Times. Retrieved February 13, 2024, from

Britannica (2024). Daniel Ortega. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Peralta, E. (2023, February 11). Nicaragua sentences Catholic bishop to 26 years in prison. NPR. Retrieved February 13, 2024, from

Simon, S. (2023, February 18). Opinion: A bishop of immense courage. NPR. Retrieved February 13, 2024, from

U.S. News and World Report. (2024a, January 14). Nicaraguan bishop Rolando Alvarez and 18 priests arrive in Rome from prison, guests of Vatican. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved February 13, 2024, from

U.S. News and World Report. (2024b, February 11). Nicaragua’s crackdown on Catholic Church spreads fear among the faithful, there and in exile. U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved February 13, 2024, from

Zengarini, L. (2023, February 11). Nicaragua: Bishop Alvarez sentenced to 26 years’ imprisonment. Vatican News. Retrieved February 13, 2024, from

Larkin Stojka writes from Bel Air, Maryland.