Eleven pastors jailed, fined $80 million each for holding outreach

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Eleven pastors and ministry leaders with Puerta de la Montaña, a plant of U.S.-based Christian ministry Mountain Gateway Order have been convicted on sham charges of money laundering after they successfully rallied hundreds of thousands of people for evangelistic events in Nicaragua.

The pastors and ministry leaders, who have been imprisoned for over two months and barred from contacting legal representation or family, have received prison sentences ranging between 12 and 15 years in addition to over 80 million dollars in fines per person.

Eleven Nicaraguan pastors jailed and fined (ADF International)

 

In addition to being barred from meeting with their legal representation or their families, the lawyers on the case were denied access to case files and other relevant documentation against the pastors. During the sham trial, the government was unable to produce any evidence of the alleged illicit activity or where the alleged unlawful funds that were “laundered” originated. 

“No one is safe from religious persecution in Nicaragua, and it is devastating to see the sham charges, trial, and conviction of these pastors and ministry leaders who were simply sharing their faith with and serving the citizens of Nicaragua,” stated Kristina Hjelkrem, legal counsel for ADF International.

“No one should be persecuted for their faith, and we look forward to securing justice for these wrongfully imprisoned leaders. All who are able need to speak out against the innumerable injustices suffered by citizens of Nicaragua at the hands of their government. It is past time for the human rights of the Nicaraguan people to be fully restored.”    

Following the conviction, Jon Britton Hancock, Founder and President of Mountain Gateway, stated “While we are certainly dismayed at the formal conviction of our colleagues and friends in Nicaragua, we remain steadfast in our hope that God is in control. We will do everything in our power to secure justice for friends in Nicaragua, and we ask you to join us in praying for their safety and swift release.” Hancock, a U.S. citizen, learned through a press release by Nicaraguan authorities that he was also being charged with money laundering and organized crime alongside the 11 pastors. He is currently safe in the United States.  

ADF International is supporting Mountain Gateway’s case and has filed a request for precautionary measures with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of those fraudulently convicted. ADF International has asked the Commission to demand that Nicaragua ensure the right to health, life, and physical integrity of the pastors during their stay in prison, while the proceedings are ongoing. 

Members of the U.S. Senate, including Senators Rick Scott (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), Katie Britt (R-AL) and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL), are also advocating on the group’s behalf, recently calling on the Biden Administration to “implement strong, targeted sanctions following the repeated & escalating violations of religious freedom in Nicaragua”. 

In addition, Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-AL), led a bipartisan, bicameral letter addressed to the Ambassador of Nicaragua that expressed concern over religious freedom violations and called for the release of the pastors. The letter was signed by 58 Members of Congress. In response to the situation, Congressman Aderholt said “It was religious persecution that detained them, and it is blatant human rights violations that have kept them detained – these pastors must be released immediately.”

Background 

Mountain Gateway Order, Inc. is a group of Christian missionaries from the U.S. whose stated purpose is to recruit, train, commission, and send out ordained Christian ministers to spread the Gospel.  

Mountain Gateway legally registered a branch of the group in Nicaragua as “Puerta de la Montaña” in 2015. Operating legally within the country, Mountain Gateway served the citizens of Nicaragua through discipleship, church planting, feeding and clothing to those in need, providing food, water, equipment, and recovery assistance during natural disasters, and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in mass evangelistic campaigns. 

In 2023, with the assistance of the Nicaraguan government, Mountain Gateway held eight mass evangelistic campaigns called “Cruzadas Buenas Nuevas Nicaragua 2023” (Good News Crusades Nicaragua), with thousands of people in attendance. The last of the eight events took place on 11 November 2023, in Managua.  

On Monday, 18 December, the Nicaraguan Police issued a press release informing the Nicaraguan people about the investigation of a money laundering crime and organized crime allegedly committed by 11 Mountain Gateway pastors, and three American citizens, using the organization Puerta de la Montaña as a front. The press release also announced that the police had arrested the 11 Puerta de la Montaña pastors and would investigate the US citizens involved with the organization.  

On 20 December, Puerta de la Montaña’s registration as a Ministry in Nicaragua was arbitrarily canceled. There was no official notification made to any members or legal representatives of Puerta de la Montaña or Mountain Gateway. The Nicaraguan government announced the cancellation, along with nine other organizations, through the official gazette of the Republic. The government has also seized all Puerta de la Montaña’s property and assets. 

On 17 January 2024, Puerta de la Montaña was made aware that the Attorney General of Nicaragua was moving forward in pursuing charges against three U.S. citizens associated with Mountain Gateway, alleging money laundering and organized crime. Even though all accused maintained their innocence, the 11 Nicaraguan pastors remained in prison. 

Mountain Gateway publicly denied these allegations, having diligently followed all legal requirements in the U.S. and Nicaragua that apply to non-profit and faith-based organizations. 

The Puerta de la Montaña pastors have been imprisoned for over two months, unable to contact their legal representatives or their families. The government has allowed for lawyers to be appointed to represent the Mountain Gateway Nicaraguan pastors but has not provided their legal counsels with any charging documents or files to adequately prepare a defense.  

A formal conviction was handed down on 19 March 2024, sentencing the 11 pastors to 12 or 15 years in prison and to pay over 80 million dollars in fines per person.   

Religious persecution prevalent in Nicaragua 

ADF International is also supporting the legal defense of Bishop Rolando Álvarez, who was sentenced to 26 years in prison for preaching on human rights violations perpetrated by the Nicaraguan government. Bishop Álvarez, exiled from Nicaragua for his religious convictions, is now safe at the Vatican. Despite his liberation, his case continues before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in hopes of achieving justice for the bishop and setting a positive precedent for others facing similar trials in Nicaragua.  ADF International