FIRST ON FOX: A Republican congressman is calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to take action and explain steps being taken to free a Catholic priest the international community says has been wrongfully imprisoned in Nicaragua.
“I am gravely concerned about the overall state of religious freedom in Nicaragua and write today inquiring about the wellbeing of His Excellency Rolando Álvarez Lagos, Bishop of Matagalpa, a prisoner of conscience who remains wrongfully detained by the brutal — and criminal — Ortega-Murillo regime in Nicaragua,” GOP Rep. Chris Smith wrote in a letter to Blinken this week.
Smith is demanding answers about what the Biden administration is doing to free Álvarez.
A court in Nicaragua sentenced the Roman Catholic bishop earlier this year to more than 26 years in prison for alleged treason after he refused to be exiled to the United States.
Álvarez was among several priests and seminarians arrested last year as the government of Nicaragua clashed with the clerics of the Catholic Church who have criticized the regime.
Álvarez refused to join four other priests and 222 other political prisoners expelled to the U.S. as part of a prisoner exchange with the U.S. State Department, according to the Catholic News Agency.
The bishop said he chose to remain in his country in protest against other Catholics who are being persecuted by the Nicaraguan government.
The bishop said if he boarded the plane, it would be admitting he was guilty of a crime he never committed, according to a person close to Álvarez who asked not to be identified out of fear of reprisal.
Ortega has alleged Catholic leaders were involved in a plot to overthrow him, citing their role as mediators with protest groups following the 2018 protests in the country that resulted in about 300 deaths.
“Bishop Álvarez is an innocent man enduring unspeakable suffering,” Smith said during a House hearing he held Thursday where members heard testimony from Nicaraguan exiled prisoners of conscience and their relatives.
“His life and ministry have been an inspiring example of compassion, kindness, integrity and selfless service.”
In March, Pope Francis compared Álvarez’s imprisonment to Hitler’s regime and called Ortega “unstable.”
“Given this disturbing trend of oppression, I respectfully request an explanation of what actions the Biden Administration is undertaking to advocate on behalf of Bishop Álvarez — and to compel the Ortega-Murillo regime to immediately release him from prison,” Smith wrote before providing 15 questions for the Biden administration to answer by Dec. 21.
The questions included, “Does the State Department possess information on the current location and wellbeing of Bishop Álvarez? …. If so, where is Bishop Álvarez being held?”
Other questions posed in the letter:
• “Has the State Department filed a formal inquiry with the Nicaraguan government concerning the status of Bishop Álvarez?”
• “Has the State Department received any formal request for assistance from the Vatican to petition for the release of Bishop Álvarez?”
• “What is the Department doing to advocate for the release of Bishop Álvarez?”
Smith also asked for information related to economic ties with Nicaragua given the Ortega regime’s human rights abuses.
“The United States needs to act quickly and use every tool at our disposal,” Smith said at the hearing. “The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to what is happening to the people of Nicaragua, including and especially people of faith.”
A State Department spokesperson told Fox News Digital the letter was received but that the department does not comment on congressional correspondence.
The spokesperson added that the department calls for the “immediate” and “unconditional” release of Álvarez and all others “wrongfully detained.”
Fox News Digital’s Jon Brown and the Associated Press contributed to this report