LIVERPOOL, England — Human rights defender Bianca Jagger has accused the Nicaraguan dictatorship of creating a spiritual vacuum in the country by its purge of Catholic clergy.
Jagger said the Jan. 14 expulsion of two bishops, 15 priests and two seminarians to the Vatican was part of a campaign by President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, to crush all political resistance in the country.
In a Jan. 19 telephone interview with OSV News, Jagger said a total of 203 priests and seminarians have been exiled since mass protests against the government in April 2018.
The expulsions included eight clergy in a group of 222 prisoners of conscience released and forcibly exiled to the United States in February 2023.
“I was informed that a plane had left Nicaragua with members of the clergy who had been abducted and were on the flight to Rome,” she said of the recent release of Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa.
“I was holding my breath. I had contradictory feelings. On the one hand I was overjoyed that he was out of the jaws of the Ortega-Murillo criminal regime because I was so deeply concerned for his life but I was also saddened by his departure,” she told OSV News.
She emphasized that “a vacuum has been left in Nicaragua, if you think about the numbers of bishops, priests, seminarians and sisters who have been expelled, exiled, stripped of their nationality or not allowed back into the country.”
“The witch hunt continues unabated in Nicaragua,” she continued, adding that she feared the strategy of the regime was to get rid of all critical voices in the church until there was no opposition and no one to champion the victims of oppression.
Only a day after Jagger’s conversation with OSV News, Martha Molina, human rights activist and Nicaraguan lawyer said in a post on X, formerly Twitter, that three more priests were exiled by the regime. Molina said that since Jan. 14 they were threatened by the police “when they were returning from celebrating Holy Mass in the St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Corinto.”
Father Ezequiel Buenfil and Father Erick Figueroa were exiled along with Father David Pérez. All three were from the Most Holy Savior religious order of the Diocese of León.
In October, a further 12 priests were flown into exile to the Vatican and 85 nuns and religious sisters, including those of the Missionaries of Charity, funded by Mother Teresa of Kolkata, were expelled and banished from Nicaragua following the dictatorship’s closure of their congregations and the confiscation of their properties. Of those, seven were forced into exile when they were prevented from reentering the country, Nicaraguan independent media Confidencial reported Jan. 9.
Jagger stressed to OSV News that “Ortega also closed and confiscated universities and Catholic education institutions.”
“The state took over 27 universities between December 2021 and August 2023, which include the John Paul II Catholic University and the Christian Autonomous University of Nicaragua,” she said.
“The devastating consequences of the Ortega-Murillo regime’s closure and confiscation of Nicaraguan universities, schools and educational centers administered by the Catholic Church,” she added, “is that thousands of children and young people are now denied access to an education and a professional career.”
Jagger, 78, is the founder and chair of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation, a former actress and the first wife of rock star Mick Jagger. The couple married in Saint-Tropez, France, in a Catholic ceremony in 1971 but divorced in 1978.
Jagger visited her native Nicaragua last time in 2018, when the anti-government protests swept through the country.
“My last visit to Nicaragua was in 2018, when I joined the largest demonstration in the history of Managua,” she told Spanish newspaper El Pais in November 2023. “The snipers suddenly opened fire on the people, not only to make us disperse, but in a deliberate act of killing, of continuing Ortega’s shoot-to-kill policy. I have been under crossfire more times before, in the war in the former Yugoslavia and in Central America, but the panic emanating from the participants of that peaceful demonstration was horrible. They killed 19 people and injured 185,” she said.
The Catholic Church has been a consistent target of hard-left President Ortega because of its sympathy for the mass protests of 2018, which he has described as an attempted coup. The president accused the church of supporting the protests and waged a campaign against the clergy along with political dissidents and opponents and the free press. Since 2018 the Nicaraguan regime has launched more than 770 attacks against the Catholic Church.
Those included arrests, expropriations, and harassment, “impediments to processions, prayers, masses in cemeteries,” as well as hate messages, according to Molina, who is also author of the study “Nicaragua: A Persecuted Church?” Over 3,500 nongovernmental organizations have been dissolved by the government in Managua since 2018.
Throughout decades of her advocacy for human rights, Jagger fought for the victims of the Bosnia war massacre, abolition of the death penalty and for the closure of the U.S.-run Guantánamo military prison. Recently she advocated for Israeli hostages to be released from Hamas hands and to protect innocent civilians, who have been dying in the Gaza Strip in the thousands since the Oct. 7 start of the Israel-Hamas war.
But in talking about her native Nicaragua, she is clear. “Anyone who opposes the Ortega-Murillo regime is either killed or imprisoned or must leave the country or is arbitrarily deported or deprived of their citizenship,” she said.
On Jan. 16 the Nicaraguan government canceled the legal status of 16 NGOs, 10 of which are Catholic or evangelical, Vatican News reported. The movable and immovable property of the NGOs will be transferred to the state, Vatican News said.
Pope Francis and the Vatican hosted the 19 bishops, priests and seminarians recently released by the regime. On Jan. 20, Bishop Silvio José Báez, who was exiled to the U.S. as early as in 2019, said on X that “Pope Francis invited me to visit him and received me today at the Vatican. I appreciate his brotherly affection and his wise words.”
Bishop Báez, who lives in Miami, was confirmed as auxiliary bishop of Managua by the Holy Father and said that the pope “expressed to me his interest and love for Nicaragua.”
“We have decided to meet several more times this year,” Bishop Báez, who was stripped of his citizenship along with 93 other people in February 2023 by Nicaragua’s government added.
In a conversation with OSV News, Jagger made a fervent appeal for the international community to impose sanctions on the regime.
“I make an appeal to the international community who have in many ways failed the people of Nicaragua by failing to introduce immediate, effective and decisive sanctions,” Jagger told OSV News. “If you were able to impose sanctions on (Russian President Vladimir) Putin, why not Daniel Ortega?”
“He has committed crimes against humanity,” Jagger said. “He is continuing to commit crimes against humanity. He is a geopolitical threat to the region.”