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Vatican shuts embassy in Nicaragua in row with Ortega

March 18, 2023

The closure follows Pope Francis calling President Daniel Ortega's socialist government a dictatorship. The Catholic Church has stepped in to shelter opposition supporters from being persecuted by authorities.

A combination picture of Pope France and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega
The closure of the Vatican embassy follows criticism of Ortega's government by the popeImage: Yara Nardi/REUTERS / CANAL 6 NICARAGUA/AFP

The Vatican has closed its diplomatic mission in Nicaragua, the Vatican News portal reported Saturday, in a growing row between the Catholic Church and the Central American country.

Bilateral relations had deteriorated further last week when Pope Francis in an interview referred to the government of socialist President Daniel Ortega as a dictatorship.

The portal said the Vatican's diplomat, Monsignor Marcel Diouf, had traveled on Friday to Costa Rica.

Ortega's government has, for years, targeted the Catholic Church after some church leaders gave shelter to anti-government protesters in their properties.

The response was prompted by the violent repression of anti-government protesters by Nicaraguan authorities since 2018, which saw many opposition members killed

As well as banning opposition protests, Ortega has forbidden the traditional street processions organized ahead of Holy Week and Easter.

The church has also tried to act as a mediator between the government and the political opposition.

Ortega: Catholic leaders are 'terrorists'

Ortega has branded church representatives as terrorists seeking to overthrow him, prompting dozens of priests to flee abroad to avoid arrest.

Two congregations of nuns were expelled last year.

One bishop, Rolando Alvarez, was sentenced to 26 years in prison in February after being charged with insubordination, undermining national integrity and other offenses.

Alvarez refused to board a plane that flew 222 dissidents and priests to exile in the United States. He also was stripped of his Nicaraguan citizenship.

Francis speaks out after months of silence

Francis has largely stayed out of the row, but last week he referred to Ortega's government as a "rude dictatorship" comparable to Hitler's, led by an "unbalanced" president. The pope was responding to Alcarez's sentencing.

In reaction, the government proposed suspending relations with the Holy See.

Last year, it forced the papal ambassador at the time to leave the country.

It's not clear what more the closure would entail in diplomatic terms.

The embassy has been entrusted to the Italian government, according to Vatican News.

The US and the European Union have imposed several rounds of sanctions on Ortega and his relatives due to his government's erosion of democracy and civil rights.

Ortega expelled the EU's ambassador to the country after she called for a return to democracy.

mm/sms (AP, AFP, dpa)