Pope Francis (left); Bishop Rolando Álvarez (right) / Vatican Media; Diocese of Matagalpa

Vatican City, Feb 12, 2023 / 08:20 am (CNA).

Pope Francis entrusted Nicaragua to the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary on Sunday after Bishop Rolando Álvarez was sentenced to 26 years in prison by Daniel Ortega’s dictatorship.

“The news from Nicaragua has grieved me a great deal, and I cannot but remember with concern Bishop Rolando Álvarez of Matagalpa, whom I care about deeply,” the pope said on Feb. 12.

Speaking at the end of his Angelus address, Pope Francis said that he was also praying for the 222 Nicaraguan political prisoners who were deported to the United States and “for all those who are suffering in that dear nation.”

“We also ask the Lord, through the intercession of the Immaculate Virgin Mary, to open the hearts of political leaders and all citizens to the sincere search for peace, which is born of truth, justice, freedom, and love and is achieved through the patient exercise of dialogue,” Francis said.

Álvarez, an outspoken critic of Ortega’s regime, was charged with being a “traitor of the homeland” on Feb. 10.

Ortega’s government has in recent years detained, imprisoned, and likely tortured numerous Catholic leaders, including at least one bishop and several priests. His government has also taken action to repress Catholic radio and television stations, and driven Catholic religious orders, including the Missionaries of Charity, from the country.

Ortega, who leads Nicaragua’s socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front party, has governed Nicaragua continuously since 2007 along with his wife, Rosario Murillo, who is now the vice president. The regime has variously been accused of corruption, voter fraud, imprisoning critical dissenters and journalists, and committing violent human rights abuses against the people of Nicaragua.

Álvarez’s sentence came one day after the bishop refused to get on the plane with the other released political prisoners, including four priests, who were flown to the U.S. in an agreement with the State Department.

Ortega said in a televised speech that Álvarez was in the line to board the plane when he suddenly decided not to get on and was taken to Modelo prison.

Álvarez had been under house arrest since August. Riot police prevented the bishop — along with priests, seminarians, and a layman — from leaving the chancery in Matagalpa from Aug. 4 to Aug. 19. At that point, the police of the Nicaraguan dictatorship abducted Álvarez in the middle of the night and took him to Managua, the country’s capital.

U.S. Representative Chris Smith praised Álvarez as a “Christ-like figure with a servant’s heart” for deciding to stay to accompany those who are suffering under the Ortega regime.

Smith, who serves as the chair of the Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, said: “We must continue to work to combat the brutal Ortega regime and free the remaining prisoners — including courageous Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who refuses to abandon his flock.”