The dictatorship of Daniel Ortega on Sunday released and sent to the Vatican two imprisoned Nicaraguan bishops along with 15 priests and seminarians.

Nicaraguan media outlets La Prensa and Confidencial first reported on the release, indicating that among those released was Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa and Bishop Isidoro Mora of Siuna.

Auxiliary Bishop Silvio José Báez of Managua, exiled due to persecution by the Ortega dictatorship, confirmed the news of the release of the bishops, priests, and seminarians in tears: “Our pastors are free.”

The released clerics arrived in Rome on Sunday afternoon and were welcomed as "guests of the Holy See," according to Vatican News.

The Ortega dictatorship issued a statement thanking Pope Francis and Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and his team “for the very respectful and discreet coordination that made possible the trip to the Vatican of two bishops, 15 priests, and two seminarians.”

“They have already been received by Vatican authorities, in compliance with agreements of good faith and good will, which seek to promote understanding and improve communication between the Holy See and Nicaragua, for peace and well-being,” the Ortega regime indicated in the statement. 

A similar release took place in October 2023 when 12 imprisoned priests were sent from Nicaragua to Rome.

Álvarez: imprisoned more than 18 months

In August 2022, Bishop Álvarez of Matagalpa, a well-known defender of human rights and critic of the Ortega regime, was forced to remain in his official residence along with several priests, seminarians, and a layman.

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Two weeks later, having almost run out of food, the Nicaraguan police broke into the house, kidnapped Álvarez, and took him to Managua, the country’s capital, where he was placed under house arrest.

On Feb. 10, 2023, the dictatorship proceeded to sentence the bishop of Matagalpa to more than 26 years in prison, accusing him of being a “traitor to the homeland.” Since then, he has been held in the prison known as “La Modelo,” where political prisoners of the regime are held.

Bishop Mora was arrested by Nicaraguan authorities on Dec. 20, 2023, in the midst of a wave of kidnappings by the regime of Catholic priests that totaled more than 15 arrests that month alone. Mora had celebrated Mass a day earlier in Matagalpa where he had encouraged the faithful to pray for Álvarez.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church’s calls for peace in Nicaragua intensified. On Jan. 1, Pope Francis expressed his “concern” for the situation in the country, “where bishops and priests have been deprived of their freedom.”

The pope’s call was echoed by U.S. authorities. On Jan. 2, Matthew Miller, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, demanded that the Nicaraguan dictatorship “immediately and unconditionally release Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who has been unjustly detained for 500 days.”

“Freedom of belief is a human right. The continued detention of Álvarez is inadmissible,” Miller said.

In the United States, prominent voices such as Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, a Catholic, also kept the spotlight on the treatment of Álvarez. In a congressional hearing held on Nov. 30, 2023, Smith assured that “Bishop Álvarez is an innocent man who endures unspeakable suffering. His life and ministry have been an inspiring example of compassion, kindness, integrity, and selfless service.”

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List of released bishops, priests, and seminarians

After the dissemination of an initial list through local media, the Ortega dictatorship published the definitive list of released bishops, priests and seminarians:

1. His Excellency Rolando Alvarez, bishop of Matagalpa

2. His Excellency Isidoro Mora, bishop of Siuna

3  Father Oscar José Escoto Saigado, vicar general of the Diocese of Matagalpa

4. Father Jader Danilo Guido Acosta, third vicar of the cathedral of Matagalpa

5. Father Pablo Antonio Villafranca Martinez, priest of the Archdiocese of Managua

6. Father Carlos Avilés Cantón, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Managua

7. Father Héctor Del Carmen Treminio Vega, priest of the Archdiocese of Managua

8. Father Marcos Francisco Díaz Prado, priest of the Diocese of León

9. Father Fernando Isaías Calero Rodríguez, priest of the Diocese of Matagalpa

10. Father Silvio José Fonseca Martínez, vicar of family, children, and youth, Archdiocese of Managua

11. Father Mikel Salvador Monterrey Arias, priest of the Archdiocese of Managua

12. Father Raúl Antonio Zamora Guerra, priest of the Archdiocese of Managua

13. Father Miguel Agustín Mantica Cuadra, pastoral vicar of the Archdiocese of Managua

14. Father Jhader Antonio Hernández Urbina, priest of the Archdiocese of Managua

15. Father Gerardo José Rodríguez Pérez, priest of the Archdiocese of Managua

16. Father Ismael Reineiro Serrano Gudiel, priest of the Archdiocese of Managua

17. Father José Gustavo Sandino Ochoa, priest of the Diocese of Jinotega

18. Seminarian Tonny Daniel Palacio Sequeira

19. Seminarian Alester De Jesús Sáenz Centeno

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA. This article was updated on Jan. 15 with the confirmation that the released clerics have arrived in Rome.