The intended audience of a Dec. 15 hearing of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on Nicaragua's repression of religious freedom was not the White House, State Department or Congress.

Rather, it was a direct appeal to Pope Francis and the Vatican.

The pope and Holy See "have not been more vocal," said Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey, the Republican co-chair of the bipartisan House commission. "They need to speak out strongly."

He said Pope Francis should avoid "words seen as weak."

Bianca Jagger, a native of Nicaragua who heads her own human rights commission, said she had pleaded with the pope to condemn the regime of Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's president since 2007, and also has appealed to Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes of Managua and to the country's conference of bishops.

"I believe we need both the pope and the Vatican to speak up and speak often," said Eddy Acevedo, chief of staff at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

The virtual hearing was held in response to the August arrest of Bishop Rolando Álvarez Lagos of Matagalpa for his criticism of the government. It has taken nearly four months for him to be formally charged.

Arrested for protesting the closure of Catholic media outlets in his diocese, he was charged Dec. 13 with conspiracy to undermine the country and propagate false news. He was assigned a public defender and told his trial would begin Jan. 10.

More than 40 political prisoners have been convicted on the same charges, according to Confidencial, a Nicaraguan weekly newspaper.

A court statement also said it had requested that Interpol issue an alert for the arrest of another priest, Father Uriel Antonio Vallejos, accused of similar offenses. In March, Ortega expelled the papal nuncio, Archbishop Waldemar Stanislaw Sommertag.

"He is a prophetic voice," Jagger said of Bishop Álvarez. "This is a man who has been a tremendous power and tremendous influence. And that is why Daniel Ortega is trying to silence him."

A government crackdown on civil and political rights that began in 2018 following protests over reductions in government benefits targeted, in addition to the Catholic Church, other religious organizations that the government deems to be beyond its ability to dominate and control.

Bishop Álvarez has been the most prominent among the arrests, which also have included priests, seminarians and laypeople. Additionally, the government shut down 10 Catholic radio stations and three Catholic TV outlets.

In his Aug. 21 Angelus address, Pope Francis called for "open and sincere" dialogue in the Central American country. He did not specifically mention Bishop Álvarez's arrest, but he prayed for peace in the country through Mary's intercession.

Tiziano Breda, Central America analyst for the International Crisis Group, told Catholic News Service at the time that "the Vatican has preferred a quiet, backdoor engagement with the government to try and persuade it to downscale its repressive tactics and resume talks with the opposition, rather than public condemnation."

At the hearing, Jagger asked of Ortega's goal, "Is it to crack down on the Catholic Church, or is it to destroy the Catholic Church in Nicaragua?"

Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the other co-chair of the Lantos commission, said persecution of churches "is one aspect of the complete collapse of human rights in Nicaragua."

The situation is so dire, he observed, the commission could not persuade any Nicaraguans to testify because of their fear of reprisals.

But the path U.S officials should take to pressure Ortega is not clear, McGovern said. "I believe we will need some new thinking" that goes "beyond sanctions. The way things look now, the status quo could go on forever."

If the government doesn't want to continually deal with Nicaraguan refugees at the U.S. border, "we need a better approach," he said.

Acevedo said President Joe Biden should expel Nicaraguan Ambassador Francisco Hooker "immediately" and Congress should expel Nicaragua from the Central American Free Trade Agreement, in place since 2005.

In a statement issued late Dec. 16, the chairman of the U.S. bishops' international policy committee called on the U.S. government and the international community "to pursue the immediate release of Bishop Álvarez, the restoration of religious freedom and human rights guarantees, and initiate a process of restoring the democratic order and the rule of law in Nicaragua."

"Since the bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters in 2018 ... the regime and its allies have been implementing a policy of severe, systematic physical, rhetorical, and institutional aggression and intimidation against the Catholic Church in Nicaragua," said Bishop David J. Malloy of Rockford, Illinois, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on International Justice and Peace.

This crackdown has included "unjust detentions, violence, prohibition of priests from returning to Nicaragua, desecrations of sacred images and even profanations of the Blessed Sacrament," he said.