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February 23, 2024

Religious and Academic Freedom in Nicaragua

In the wake of the International Religious Freedom (IRF) 2024 Summit on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) and Georgetown Americas Institute (GAI) teamed up with the International Republican Institute (IRI) to host an event on religious and academic freedom in Nicaragua

From left to right, Francisco Urrutia de la Torre, Marco Morales, Martha Patricia Molina, and Diana Kapiszweski.
From left to right, Francisco Urrutia de la Torre, Marco Morales, Martha Patricia Molina, and Diana Kapiszweski.

Panelists discussed the critical situation faced by religiously-affiliated institutions and called for greater support for those affected by the Ortega government’s crackdown on civil liberties. The panel included Martha Patricia Molina, a lawyer and religious freedom expert; Marco Morales, an academic freedom activist from Nicaragua; and Francisco Urrutia de la Torre, executive secretary of the Association of Jesuit Universities in Latin America (AUSJAL), and was moderated by Diana Kapiszweski, director of the Center for Latin American Studies.

Rev. Matthew Carnes, S.J., associate professor of government and vice dean for faculty and graduate affairs at Georetown’s Walsh School of Foreign Service, opened the conversation by emphasizing the importance of religious and academic freedom for democratic societies and recounted some of the many measures the Nicaraguan government has used to severely restrict those freedoms. Carnes highlighted the closure and asset seizure of the Jesuit-affiliated Central American University in Nicaragua and called for solidarity among fellow Jesuit institutions, including Georgetown. 

Crackdown on Religious Freedom

Molina described how the church has become a target since the 2018 protests. Repressive tactics include the exile of religious figures, the shutdown of Jesuit-affiliated universities, and the persecution of Catholic Church members on money laundering charges. Citing the 2024 report “Nicaragua, A Persecuted Church?”, she shared that between 2018 and 2024, 812 incidents have been recorded against the Catholic Church and 70 against evangelical churches. 

Those are not the only concerning statistics: 211 priests and pastors have been forced into exile, and 317 individuals had their nationalities revoked. Additionally, 13 religious buildings have been confiscated by the government, over 3,600 public religious events have been banned, and 250 religious-affiliated NGOs have been shut down. 

Molina called out the international community’s hypocritical approach to Nicaragua. On one hand, countries condemn the Ortega government as a dictatorship in multilateral forums like the Organization of American States and the UN, but the Nicaraguan government still receives access to international finance and loans that, in her view, end up financing the repression of the Nicaraguan people. 

Attacks on Academic Freedom and a Dying Democracy 

Morales discussed academic freedom and its role in upholding democracy, pointing to the role of students in the 2018 protests, when the government’s violent response claimed 355 lives. Morales argued that the Nicaraguan government has co-opted the public university system, turning classrooms into “echo chambers of political propaganda” where academic merit is being replaced by political loyalty, with unjustified expulsions becoming commonplace. He pointed out that private universities have also been targeted; thirty out of the 50 private universities that operate in Nicaragua have been nationalized. In addition, the academic offerings in universities have been curtailed, with political philosophy being either eliminated from curricula or adapted to promote pro-government rhetoric. 

Morales pointed out that the ongoing crisis has exacerbated the mass exodus of Nicaraguans, estimated at 10% of the country’s population. As Nicaragua transitioned into full-blown totalitarianism, it became impossible to uphold the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy. He emphasized the role that higher education plays in economic growth and long-term development, since independent institutions are the foundation of any democratic society, and raised concerns about Nicaragua’s relationship with other non-democratic actors like Russia and North Korea. 

AUSJAL and Jesuit Solidarity

Urrutia put a spotlight on Latin American Jesuit institutions, their response to the ongoing crisis in Nicaragua, and the immediate needs of students affected by university closures. Association of Universities Entrusted to the Society of Jesus in Latin America (AUSJAL) includes 30 Jesuit-affiliated higher education institutions in 14 Latin American countries. As a response to the Nicaraguan government’s crackdown on academic freedoms, and in particular the attacks on the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), AUSJAL has supported students by facilitating their enrollment in institutions outside Nicaragua, setting up a database of students seeking to continue their studies. They found that 96% of those seeking support are undergraduate students in the last years of their degrees. 

Urrutia highlighted the administrative burdens faced by these students, including the documentation and validation of academic transcripts and their migration status in host countries. He emphasized the need for financial support to cover relocation, tuition, and living costs of students impacted by the closures. 

Backsliding into Autocracy 

As the conversation concluded, Molina, Morales, and Urrutia de la Torre agreed that the end goal of the Nicaraguan government is to punish and silence dissenting voices, regardless of their origin. Forced exile of religious figures is being used as an alternative to domestic incarceration to avoid local political costs, as well as international pressure. The panelists likewise concurred that the crackdown on academic freedom is part of a broader strategy that targets independence and dissent in the country. 

The panelists fear that, despite the Vatican’s proactive engagement with the Nicaraguan government, there is little hope for a breakthrough. They anticipate a sustained backsliding into autocracy and request more support for victims of the Nicaraguan government’s crackdown on civil liberties.

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As a complement to the International Religious Freedom (IRF) 2024 Summit on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Georgetown University's Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) and Georgetown Americas Institute (GAI), and the International Republican Institute (IRI) will host a side event on Religious & Academic Freedom in Nicaragua under the current government.