Nicaragua鈥檚 exiled clergy and faithful in Miami keep up struggle for human rights at Mass



When the Rev. Silvio B谩ez finished his homily on a recent Sunday, applause broke out among the hundreds of faithful in St. Agatha Catholic Church, on the outskirts of Miami, that has become the spiritual home of the growing Nicaraguan diaspora.

For the auxiliary bishop of Managua, his fellow priests and many worshippers who have fled or been exiled from Nicaragua recently, the Sunday afternoon Mass is not only a way to find solace in community. It鈥檚 also a means of pushing back against the government鈥檚 violent suppression of critics, including many Catholic leaders.

鈥淔or me, it鈥檚 the moment when I am closest to the people of Nicaragua. It鈥檚 like going back for an hour,鈥 B谩ez told 老澳门六合彩 after greeting a long line of congregants outside the sacristy. 鈥淢y constant message is, 鈥楲et鈥檚 not lose hope, let鈥檚 not get used to a situation that God doesn鈥檛 want.鈥欌

B谩ez said he left Nicaragua in the spring of 2019 only because Pope Francis told him to, 鈥渢o save my life 鈥 he said he didn鈥檛 want another Central American martyr bishop.鈥

But the pope has added, 鈥渄on鈥檛 abandon your people,鈥 B谩ez said, and these Miami Masses, which are also livestreamed, have become his way to preach resilience.

His recent homilies, based on Jesus鈥 teachings about love of God and neighbor as well as the importance of acting out one鈥檚 values, have denounced 鈥渄ictators who say they love God but oppress the people.鈥 He has decried the hypocrisy of those who call themselves 鈥渢he people鈥檚 president鈥 only to 鈥渘ullify these very people, denying them fundamental liberties.鈥

鈥淔rom Monday to Saturday we live through vicissitudes, problems, all sorts of things, and on Sunday with the homily it鈥檚 like a glass of water in the desert,鈥 said Donald Alvarenga as he arrived for B谩ez鈥檚 service.

Alvarenga rarely attended Mass in Nicaragua but doesn鈥檛 miss one here since he was among more than 200 Nicaraguans released from detention, forcibly expelled to the United States in February and later stripped of citizenship by the government of President Daniel Ortega.

Ortega has had an uneven relationship with faith leaders for decades. His government, like some other Latin American governments, traces its roots back to a socialist revolution that was opposed by Catholic hierarchy, though supported by some liberal clergy.

Since repressing popular protests in 2018 that called for his resignation, Ortega鈥檚 government has systematically silenced opposing voices and zeroed in on the church, including confiscating the prestigious Jesuit-run University of Central America in August.

Nicaragua鈥檚 congress, dominated by Ortega鈥檚 Sandinista National Liberation Front, has ordered the closure of more than 3,000 nongovernmental organizations, including Mother Teresa鈥檚 charity.

鈥淭his is the last independent institution, the Catholic Church, that Ortega doesn鈥檛 have complete control over. It鈥檚 really trying to overtake the last institution that could be a threat to his legitimacy,鈥 said Michael Hendricks, a politics professor at Illinois State University and former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua.

Repression even extended to barring many patron saint鈥檚 feasts and Easter processions in a country where the Christian faith has vast cultural resonance, Hendricks added. An estimated 10% of the population has fled -- more than half a million since 2018.

The moves against young protesters and the church, where college student Cinthya Benavides was active in youth ministry, pushed her to leave Nicaragua 鈥 fleeing her house with only her passport, phone and laptop as police knocked on the front door.

鈥淚 had to come illegally. But my faith sustained me,鈥 she said at St. Agatha, where she and two fellow members of the Nicaraguan University Alliance distributed flyers about church persecution.

Her own parish priest was in prison for a while. Last month, Nicaragua released a dozen Catholic priests jailed on a variety of charges and sent them to Rome following an agreement with the Vatican.

But Bishop Rolando 脕lvarez has remained in prison for more than a year and received a 26-year sentence after refusing to get on the February flight to the United States.

B谩ez opens each Mass with a prayer for 脕lvarez鈥檚 health, strength and 鈥渦nconditional freedom.鈥 The Rev. Edwing Rom谩n, who also celebrates Mass at St. Agatha, said 脕lvarez鈥檚 detention in a notoriously harsh prison convinced him returning to Nicaragua isn鈥檛 an option for now.

Rom谩n had come to the United States in 2021 for a short trip to baptize a relative. But while here, he was made aware of threats he would be jailed if he returned to his parish church in Masaya, where he had assisted injured protesters.

鈥淚t was a humanitarian ministry. I have no regrets,鈥 Rom谩n said. One evening during the 2018 protests, he heard cries and shots outside his rectory and, after opening the door in his pajamas, ended up spending hours washing off blood and teargas from injured youth.

With donations of gauze and other supplies, he started a small dispensary in his parish, where the bodies of dead protesters were also taken. That earned him accusations from authorities of being a 鈥渢errorist鈥 intent on overthrowing the government, and police routinely detained him when he left the church, he said.

To former political prisoner Carlos Valle, who was exiled in February, the courageous ministry of priests like Rom谩n and B谩ez serves as a 鈥渟piritual guide.鈥

鈥淲e feel refuge with them, they鈥檙e exiled just like us,鈥 said Valle. Of his 12 children, 11 have also fled Nicaragua 鈥 one stayed behind because she works for the government.

Every week, newly arrived Nicaraguans knock on the parish door, needing help with everything from legal immigration assistance to a place to stay 鈥 an increasingly tough ask as hundreds of thousands of exiles and migrants have strained Miami鈥檚 welcome.

鈥淭o help them, for me is an obligation,鈥 said St. Agatha鈥檚 pastor, the Rev. Marcos Somarriba, who himself came decades ago as a teen. 鈥淚 know what it鈥檚 like to go through this.鈥

B谩ez said the church, in addition to offering practical help, can continue advocating for human rights and for a different social and political way because 鈥渢here, nobody can say this.鈥

Many priests, nuns and other exiles worry about reprisal, especially against their families still in Nicaragua, and fear going public with their stories. But others feel a responsibility to bring awareness and a sense of hope.

鈥淓ven fear we have already lost,鈥 said Nestor Palma as he distributed flyers about exiled priests and political prisoners at St. Agatha. 鈥淭hat鈥檚 why we鈥檙e in this daily struggle, so that the light might not be lost.鈥

Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP鈥檚 with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.