The Nicaraguan government announced on Sunday that it had released two Catholic bishops, including Monsignor Rolando Alvarez, very critical of President Daniel Ortega, 13 priests and three seminarians, and sent them to Rome.

Monsignor Alvarez, 57, was arrested in August 2022 and sentenced in February 2023 to 26 years in prison. In October, when 12 other Catholic priests were released and sent back to the Vatican, Mr. Alvarez said he preferred to remain in prison rather than exile, while the United States and various international human rights organizations called for his release.

Among those released were also Bishop Isidoro Mora and 13 other priests arrested at the end of December, according to Nicaraguan media and opponents in exile. At the beginning of January Pope Francis, who had described the Ortega government as a “gross dictatorship”, said he was following “with deep concern” the fate of these priests arrested around Christmas.

The Nicaraguan presidency said in a statement that the released religious “have already been received by the Vatican authorities, in accordance with the agreements of good faith and good will, which seek to promote understanding and improve communication between the Holy See and Nicaragua, for peace and good.”

176 priests and religious expelled, banned or prohibited from entering Nicaragua since 2018

Nicaraguan media such as La Prensa, El Confidencial and 100% Noticias, whose editorial staff works in exile from Costa Rica, claimed that the plane had already arrived in Rome. Information confirmed by the Reflection Group of Ex-Political Prisoners (Grexcr), based in San José.

Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Baez, exiled in the United States, said in a message reproduced on social networks that the religious “were welcomed by the Holy See.”

“I want to invite you all to thank Pope Francis (…) for the effectiveness of Vatican diplomacy,” Mr. Baez said during a Sunday service.

Relations between the Vatican and the Nicaraguan government deteriorated during protests in 2018 marked by clashes between the opposition and those in power. More than 300 people died during this violence, according to the UN.

The Managua government considers these demonstrations to be a coup attempt supported by Washington, while the United States, the European Union and international organizations have accused it of carrying out political repression. The United States and the EU have imposed sanctions against the Nicaraguan government.

According to lawyer Martha Molina, exiled in the United States, since 2018 176 priests and religious have been expelled, banned or prohibited from entering Nicaragua, where nearly half of the 6.3 million inhabitants are Catholic.