Father Edwin Román arrived in Miami on August 3, 2021, for a brief stay with only a small carry-on suitcase. But the following day, Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, wife of President Daniel Ortega, called him a murderer and his plans changed.  He listened to his parish’s faithful and decided to stay in exile.

“Rosario Murillo in one of her speeches alluded to my trip [to Miami] claiming that ‘he leaves the country all the time, a murderer, a criminal who rang the bells of a church in Masaya to order a hit on people, who was still celebrating Mass after desecrating the church in Masaya,” the priest told Crux.

Masaya is a city not far from Managua, Nicaragua’s capital, where Román is the parish priest of the San Miguel Arcángel Church.

The day after the vice president’s speech, pro-government newspapers began a smear campaign against him, repeating Murillo’s words and calling him a murderer who used the bell tower to order people’s deaths. He was accused of setting fire to citizens who were killed during the April 2018 protests, and of encouraging the torture of policemen and having them set ablaze while they were alive.

From Miami, the priest “launched an SOS for my beloved Nicaragua, where much blood has been shed. We want, with God’s help, a prosperous country in freedom, justice and democracy. And we need your prayers for that.”

According to the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, 355 protesters were killed by the military and paramilitary forces; however, no human rights organization has data of any policemen being set on fire. But Román was one of the many priests who opened the doors of his parish as a refuge for protesters when the civil uprising began.

Since then, he has been one of several Catholic priests and members of religious orders who have supported the victims of the Ortega-Murillo regime. He assisted the wounded, interceded for kidnapped people, and protected threatened citizens.

In November 2019, he and several women in his parish – mothers of political prisoners – who were carrying out a hunger strike lived through a brutal siege by the police. For nine days, those inside the parish had no running water and no electricity; both were cut off in an attempt to subdue them.

Acknowledging the threats against his life and hearing of heavy police surveillance around his home parish, Román finally acquiesced to the requests of his parishioners and stayed in Miami. Father Marcos Somarriba, with the green light from Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, gave him a room in his parish.

Since then, he has been providing pastoral care to the thousands of Nicaraguans who have arrived in the United States “fleeing the repression.” He is not alone: Bishop Silvio Baez, Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Managua, was forced into exile in 2019.

A report released on Monday by researcher Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, lawyer and member of the Observatory Pro-Transparency and Anti-Corruption, details 190 attacks against the Catholic Church by the Nicaraguan government since April 2018. She classified these attacks in seven categories: Graffiti on walls and anonymous messages on Catholic churches; threats made to  to priests, bishops and lay Catholics; obstacles to non-profit organizations of the Catholic Church; aggressive messages against priests and religious by Ortega and Murillo; desecration of churches; robberies; and other acts of aggression.

Román told Crux that the Sandinista regime has tried to divide the Catholic Church since they came to power for the first time in the 1980s, proclaiming there is a “popular church, which does nothing more than tend to the directives of the government,” and then there is the “other church,” which according to the government, is nothing more than a pack of criminal priests and bishops who “aren’t even Christian,” because they protest the government’s dictatorial inclinations.

“Since then, they have spent years trying to manipulate our religious signs, infiltrate people related to them within the parishes, expel priests from the country, defamations, montages to denigrate, direct attacks to churches and religious images, such as the Molotov attack against the Blood of Christ in the Cathedral of Managua, throwing acid in the face of Father Mario Guevara in the cathedral, siege and persecution of priests and bishops.”

Román also spoke of the two latest attacks by the government: The harassment of Bishop Rolando Alvarez of Matagalpa, and the siege of the Parish of San Juan Bautista in Masaya, where Father Arving Padilla was banned from leaving for weeks, and the faithful were prevented from taking part in religious services.

“Logically, it has a great impact on the people of God who do not stop praying and offering sacrifices,” he said. Despite the real possibility of the police entering churches at any moment and officers in civilian clothes recording the homilies and taking pictures of those who go to Mass, “the attendance of the faithful is always very numerous.”

“Many of our faithful are threatened,” he said. People are forced into choosing between their faith or their jobs.

Trying to explain what is happening in his country, Román said that in Nicaragua there is a criminal dictatorship that buried democracy and “keeps kidnapped (people) in inhumane prisons – more than 180 political prisoners – others displaced, and disappeared; (and there are) thousands of exiles who daily flee from repression to countries like Costa Rica, Spain, Canada, USA, and others.”

Freedom of expression is censored, and journalists are either imprisoned, exiled or murdered. Carrying the Nicaraguan flag, he said, is now a crime for which one can go to jail without proper trial, and churches are desecrated if the flag is by the altar.

“Nicaragua has become a sad and insecure country, at the hands of Sandinista paramilitaries, hooded motorized men with guns in their hands who assault you,” Román said. “We live under a family dictatorship: Ortega Murillo, all state institutions are concentrated in them, including the army and the police.”

Nicaragua was flagged by the United States’ Department religious freedom report in 2022, for attacks on the Catholic Church and its priests and members.

In spite of it all, Román is confident things will turn around. “The church has not been founded by men. It is sustained by its own founder, Jesus Christ, and the powers of hell will not prevail against it, as sacred scripture tells us.”

“The church on pilgrimage in Nicaragua has never been and never will be an enemy of the state, we simply announce the Kingdom of God, but we also prophetically denounce injustices, we are not here to please the government in power,” he said. “The church has always attended the funeral of its adversaries.”