Nicaragua dictatorship sentences 11 Christian leaders to prison, fines them $880 million

Nicaragua Christian leaders Eleven Christian leaders were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay $880 million on March 19, 2024, by the dictatorship in Nicaragua. | Credit: Credit: ADF International / Mountain Gateway Order, Inc.

The dictatorship of President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, in Nicaragua sentenced 11 Christian leaders to 12 to 15 years in prison and ordered them to pay $880 million. They have also been barred from having contact with their families and lawyers. 

The trial took place in wake of the leaders’ success in bringing together thousands of people to pray in public venues, which the Sandinista regime apparently perceived as a threat.

According to Statista, Nicaragua is about 45% Catholic with close to 38% of the people belonging to various Protestant groups.

The sentence, announced on March 19, is for “sham charges of money laundering,” according to a press release from ADF International, an organization that defends religious freedom and has taken up the legal defense of the 11 leaders. Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International has already taken the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

ADF International has asked the IACHR to require that Nicaragua guarantee the health, life, and well-being of the 11 convicted leaders while the case with the court is in progress.

The 11 sentenced leaders, who must individually pay $80 million, are a married couple, an evangelist, and eight pastors linked to the group Puerta de la Montaña (Mountain Gateway), founded in Texas and which has been working in Nicaragua since 2015 with the permission of the Nicaraguan regime.

One of these 11 is a man who lives in an adobe house with no electricity and who cooks his food with firewood.

Four United States senators — Rick Scott, Ted Cruz, Katie Britt, and Tommy Tuberville — have asked the Biden administration to “implement strong, targeted sanctions following the repeated and escalating violations of religious freedom in Nicaragua.”

In addition, Congressman Robert Aderholt sent a letter to the Nicaraguan ambassador in the United States signed by 58 members of Congress pointing out that it was for reasons of religious persecution that the leaders were detained, “and it is blatant human rights violations that have kept them detained — these pastors must be released immediately.”

Dictatorship’s case against the leaders

In 2023, with the assistance of the Nicaraguan government, Mountain Gateway carried out eight massive “evangelistic campaigns” called “Good News Crusades Nicaragua 2023,” with thousands of people in attendance. The last one was held on Nov. 11, 2023, in Managua, with more than 170,000 participants, and another 10 such events had already been scheduled for 2024.

Kristina Hjelkrem, a lawyer and legal adviser for ADF International who is handling the case, explained April 4 to ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner, that it was on Nov. 11 that the persecution began, followed by the cancellation of the organization’s legal personhood and the confiscation of almost $5 million of their property and assets, culminating Dec. 18–20 with the arrest and imprisonment of the 11 leaders accused of money laundering.

The expert in international law expressed her surprise because the Christian group’s campaigns were carried out in coordination with the regime, which “gave them the opportunity to preach outdoors at massive events, something that was no longer allowed to the Catholic Church.”

After pointing out that in Nicaragua the government has closed 200-300 Protestant churches, Hjelkrem noted that these events became a meeting place for those who wanted to pray in public places, because “people had nowhere to go.”

These events, she added, mobilized “so many people that the government became alarmed and decided to put an end to Mountain Gateway because it viewed it as a social movement, although we know that it is deeply religious and only religious.”

Jon Britton Hancock, founder and president of Mountain Gateway, told ACI Prensa that the events were “purely religious. We are not politically motivated nor are we involved in politics, neither in Nicaragua nor in any of the countries where we work.”

“What we believe about our work is that we are not ambassadors of any country but ambassadors of the kingdom of heaven, and that is why we are concerned about the good of all people,” he said.

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Hjelkrem also highlighted that the Nicaraguan government “doesn’t like someone having this ability to move people, it doesn’t like any type of leadership.”

Regarding the accusation of money laundering, the lawyer stressed that the Ortega and Murillo regime “had people who came to audit the accounts month after month. There was not a single dollar that came from their donors in the United States that went into Nicaragua that was not explained in official documents.”

Persecution of Christians in Nicaragua

On Jan. 17 Mountain Gateway learned that the attorney general of Nicaragua was moving forward with filing charges against three U.S. citizens associated with its organizations, alleging money laundering and organized crime, an allegation the group emphatically denies.

The accused are Hancock, his son Jacob, and his daughter-in-law Kathy, who cannot leave the United States because Nicaragua has issued an alert to Interpol requesting their extradition if they are in any of the countries the notice went to. 

“We have different emotions: We’re sad, angry, and very worried about our people in prison, about the lack of freedom. This is a terrible situation,” Hancock told ACI Prensa.

After commenting that he is in Washington, D.C., to seek help and some kind of diplomatic solution, the founder of Mountain Gateway condemned religious persecution in Nicaragua, including that against the Catholic Church.

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“It’s terrible! I think government persecution of any group isn’t good. We have seen the government persecuting Catholics and their priests; also evangelical pastors. It’s not right and we emphatically condemn it,” the Christian leader said.

Hjelkrem also told ACI Prensa that in evangelical circles it is said that “all the pastors are aware that there are infiltrators and informants in their churches, which is why they are not free to preach freely because they know that the regime is waiting for someone to speak out against the government about its actions in order to close churches.”

In response to the question “What would you say to Daniel Ortega?” from ACI Prensa, Hancock said he “would talk to him about the need to defend freedom and not his power.”

“I would do my best to convince him to stop the persecution of those who criticize him and instead to protect freedom of thought, of choice, as well as religious freedom,” he said.

Hancock added: “I would ask him to change and listen to the Scriptures and the truth; and to walk before God with love and mercy. That’s what I would tell him.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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