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Nicaraguan police on Friday accused the Catholic Church and Bishop Rolando Alvarez, who has been under siege in his residence for two days, of inciting violence to destabilize the country.
Police in a statement said the Church and Alvarez, a vocal critic of President Daniel Ortega, were "trying to organize violent groups and inciting them to carry out acts of hatred against" the government, adding that an investigation had been opened.
Alvarez, along with a number of priests and lay people, has been holed up in the bishop's residence in the northern city of Matagalpa since Thursday, when riot police prevented him from leaving to say mass.
It is the latest incident in a rapidly worsening standoff between civil society and a government accused of growing authoritarianism.
The 55-year-old bishop in a video released Thursday denounced official "harassment" and urged the government to respect religious freedom.
The police accused those holed up in the residence of provoking "an atmosphere of anxiety and disorder, disturbing the peace and harmony in the community with the purpose of destabilizing the state of Nicaragua and attacking the constitutional authorities."
The Church in Nicaragua has been under increasing government pressure since opposition protests in 2018 met with repression that resulted in 355 deaths, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Ortega, who maintains the protests were part of a Washington-backed opposition plot to unseat him, has accused bishops of complicity and said protesters used church buildings as "barracks."
Churches sheltered protesters who were injured or went into hiding.
Prevented from walking to his church four blocks away on Friday, Alvarez opted to give mass from the residence, and broadcast it live on Facebook.
"The road outside our clergy house is closed off by the national police. And the main gate, as well as the garage, are also blocked by the riot police. However, even in this situation, we maintain our joy, our strength and our inner peace," Alvarez told the faithful.
- 'Violation of freedom' -
The siege came just days after Alvarez denounced the closure by authorities of five radio stations in his diocese in Matagalpa.
This followed the closure in June of several Catholic news channels.
The European Union on Thursday condemned the "arbitrary" closure of Catholic and community broadcasters, and said "excessive police force was used to occupy the installations and to intimidate and disperse unarmed protesters."
This amounted to "yet another violation of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief," EU spokesman Peter Stano said in a statement.
Ortega, a 76-year-old former guerrilla, has governed Nicaragua since 2007, winning three successive reelections.
The last vote took place in November 2021, with several of Ortega's main rivals joining dozens of other government opponents and critics in jail.
According to the EU, Nicaragua has more than 180 "political prisoners."
In the first half of 2022, the bloc said, Nicaraguan authorities closed down over 1,200 civil society organizations.
The Vatican has said that Nicaragua expelled its ambassador to the country in March.
A charity organization established by Mother Teresa was outlawed in July, and its nuns forced to leave the country.
Matagalpa parishioners held a prayer service for Alvarez on Friday.
"The church is being persecuted just for preaching the gospel, just for that, because all we do is pray, praise the Lord and glorify Him," parishioner Maria Ruiz told AFP.
Nicaraguan mainstream media outlets have also accused Ortega's government of a level of harassment that has forced media personnel to flee abroad.
Last month, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists called for Nicaragua to "stop raiding journalists' homes and allow the media to work freely."