CHICAGO — Newly released political prisoners from Nicaragua were welcomed to Chicago at a mass held in Buena Park Sunday afternoon.

Archbishop of Chicago, Cardinal Blase Cupich, issued a statement that was read to begin the service at Saint Mary of the Lake Catholic Church.

“In solidarity with the suffering Church of Nicaragua, I have offered hospitality and welcome to a courageous priest who, with many of his brothers, stood with his bishop as a witness to the human rights of their people. The Church of Chicago is blessed to have them with us. We call for an immediate end to the systemic persecution of the Church in Nicaragua though false accusations, the closure of Catholic radio stations, the blocking of access to Churches, and other serious acts that violate religious freedom and the social order.”

Cardinal Blase Cupich

In all, around 100 Nicaraguans travelling from Indianapolis and Ohio attended the service. Among them was Father Erick Diaz, who delivered the homily at Saint Mary of the Lake.

Diaz was forced to leave his homeland after the government of authoritarian dictator Daniel Ortega threatened to throw him in prison.

Diaz said a confidential source told him last August an order had been signed for his arrest and that he had only 30 minutes to leave his church and flee the country, leading to him ending up where he is today, in Chicago.

While Diaz considers being a priest in Chicago a blessing, he said his heart remains with the people he knows back in Nicaragua.

During Sunday’s mass, parishioners and Nicaraguan exiles alike prayed for Bishop Rolando Alvarez’s release, while also giving thanks for the release of 222 political prisoners who were freed in early February.

Nicaraguan Catholic priests have endured harsh persecution at the hands of police and Ortega’s government for decades.

The end result, Diaz said, is an ongoing exodus of Nicaraguans to places like Chicago, Houston and Miami.

“To this moment, we’re getting close to reaching 2 million people who have abandoned Nicaragua,” Diaz said. “A product of the situation that threatens the country.”