Nicaraguan police said on Saturday they are investigating several dioceses of the Catholic Church for money laundering, a day after local media reported that the bank accounts of parishes in the Central American country had been frozen.
The police, loyal to the government of President Daniel Ortega which has clashed fiercely with Nicaragua's bishops, said that since May 19 they found "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in Church facilities in various parts of the country.
Investigations "confirmed the unlawful removal of resources from bank accounts that had been ordered by law to be frozen," the police said in a statement.
Ortega's government has intensified attacks against the Catholic Church in the wake of 2018 anti-government protests in which some 360 people died after what human rights groups call police repression. The government accused the bishops, who mediated talks between the government and protesters, of attempting a coup.
The police statement said the bank accounts were linked to religious figures convicted of treason and other crimes, and that the investigations confirmed the funds entered the country irregularly.
The police said the investigation also confirmed "other illicit activities, which are still being investigated as part of a money laundering network that has been discovered in the dioceses in different departments."
Reuters sought comment from several Nicaraguan bishops, but did not receive a timely response.
Since the anti-government protests, Ortega has imprisoned and expelled priests and nuns, banned pilgrimages and religious processions and shut nursing homes and soup kitchens that had been run by nuns.
Last February, a Nicaraguan court sentenced high-profile government critic Bishop Rolando Alvarez to 26 years in prison for treason and cybercrimes, after he refused to board a plane amid the expulsion of 222 other political prisoners.
The expelled prisoners were promptly stripped of their nationality, including six priests from Alvarez' diocese who had previously been convicted of the same crimes.
Ortega also suspended ties with the Vatican in March, shortly after Pope Francis compared his administration to the Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler.