Nicaraguan bishop and regime critic Rolando Álvarez was detained Friday for "destabilising and provocative" activities, in a worsening standoff between the Church and a government accused of increasing authoritarianism.
After two weeks under police siege at his official residence in Matagalpa, central Nicaragua, Álvarez was taken Friday by police to Managua some 130 kilometres (81 miles) away, authorities said.
Supporters said Álvarez was taken "with violence" to an unknown location, prompting the United Nations and Organisation of American States (OAS) to express concern.
In a tweet tagged #SOS, the Latin American Bishops Conference (CELAM) said that "the national police has entered the residence of our diocese of Matagalpa and has taken" the bishop.
It said this happened at 3:00 am at the church residence in Matagalpa where Álvarez and a group of priests and lay people had been held under siege by police since August 4.
Vilma Núñez of the Nicaraguan Centre for Human Rights (Cenidh) told AFP that police "removed (the bishop) with violence" and without telling anyone where he was being taken.
Hours later, the national police said in a statement that Álvarez was brought to Managua.
"The bishop is under house arrest in the capital city," it said, without revealing where.
"He was able to meet with his family members this morning," it added.
Eight others, including five priests, who had been holed up with Álvarez were taken to Managua with him, according to CELAM, and were all under investigation.
Later, the Church said Álvarez was being held at his "family home" where Cardinal Lepoldo Brenes was allowed to visit him.
Brenes reported the bishop's "physical condition has deteriorated" but his "spirit is strong," the archdiocese of Managua said in a statement.
The other eight were being held at El Chipote prison, according to Cenidh – a notorious lockup for government critics.
Police said Álvarez's detention was a "public order" operation necessitated by the bishop's "destabilising and provocative activities."
UN chief António Guterres said he was "very concerned by the severe closure of democratic and civic space in Nicaragua, and recent actions against civil society organisations, including those of the Catholic Church.
"Reports of a raid against the residence of the Catholic bishop of Matagalpa only heightens these concerns," he said.
The Catholic Church in Nicaragua has been under increasing government pressure since opposition protests in 2018 were met with repression that resulted in hundreds of deaths.
President Daniel Ortega maintains the protests were part of a Washington-backed opposition plot to unseat him. He has accused bishops of complicity and claimed protesters used church buildings as "barracks."
Álvarez himself is accused by the authorities of inciting violence to destabilise the Central American country.
He was placed under siege at his residence after criticising the closure of Church radio stations and news channels.
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 Ortega's main rivals in jail alongside dozens of other government opponents and critics.
According to the European Union, Nicaragua has more than 180 "political prisoners."
In the first half of 2022, the bloc says, Nicaraguan authorities closed down over 1,200 civil society organisations.
The Vatican has said Nicaragua expelled its ambassador to the country in March.
Last week, the Cenidh said another Nicaraguan priest, Oscar Benavidez, was "removed from his vehicle and taken by patrol car to an unknown destination."
Arturo McFields, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the Organisation of American States, tweeted Friday that the "dictatorship kidnapped Rolando Álvarez... continuing its infernal pursuit of the Church."
Guterres, for his part, urged Ortega's government "to ensure the protection of human rights of all citizens... and to release all people arbitrarily detained."
Representatives of the Church in Peru and Panama sent messages of solidarity.
And OAS secretary general Luis Almagro tweeted: "We condemn the kidnapping" of Álvarez and the others by "the repressive forces" of Ortega's regime.
"We demand their immediate release and that of all political prisoners," he said.