Authorities in Nicaragua have jailed nine pastors for more than a month on charges that they formed part of a criminal operation along with three U.S. missionaries, according to the mission organization.
The Nicaraguan Attorney General’s office has charged the three U.S. missionaries of Texas-based Mountain Gateway and 11 Nicaraguans with forming part of a “criminal structure” involved in money laundering and organized crime and has reportedly issued warrants for their arrest.
“Mountain Gateway would like to publicly state it denies these allegations, and it is saddened by this situation,” the group said in a press statement. "These charges are based on erroneous information, and Mountain Gateway will do everything in its power to resolve this through diplomatic channels."
Mountain Gateway, which operates in the Central American country as Puerta de la Montaña, said prosecutors believed the Nicaraguan pastors were under the direction of the mission group’s Jon Britton Hancock, Jacob Britton Hancock and Cassandra Mae Hancock, all U.S. citizens, and Nicaraguans Walner Omier Blandón Ochoa and Maricela de Fátima Mejía Ruiz.
“While the Nicaraguan government says the [Nicaraguan] pastors are innocent, the pastors have been imprisoned for over a month with no legal representation or contact with their families,” Mountain Gateway stated. At the same time, it added that the government has since “allowed a lawyer to be appointed to represent the Mountain Gateway Nicaraguan pastors, but has not provided their legal counsel with the charging documents or any files to prepare a defense.”
Mountain Gateway stated that it had diligently followed all legal requirements in the U.S. and Nicaragua and had documentation showing the Nicaraguan government approved all funds entering the country and ensured they were used appropriately.
“Nicaragua has revoked the registration of hundreds of non-profit and faith-based organizations in the last five years, including most recently, expelling numerous members of the Catholic Church and seizing church property,” the group stated. “In these cases, the government often includes the charge of money laundering or other financial charges as the reason for revocation.”
Mountain Gateway held eight large evangelistic events in Nicaragua last year under strict accounting by in-house staff and budget reviews by the Nicaraguan government, the group stated.
“No members of Mountain Gateway have personally profited from funds sent to Nicaragua for ministry functions,” it said.
The missions group announced on Dec. 22 that the Nicaraguan government had canceled its registration as a ministry in the country.
Nicaragua shut down, confiscated or destroyed 347 Christian buildings from Oct. 1, 2022 to Sept. 30, 2023, the fourth highest worldwide behind only China, India and Nigeria, according to Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List (WWL) of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Nicaraguan authorities detained 38 Christians during this period, according the WWL report.
Open government hostility toward Christians during the period resulted in Nicaragua vaulting from 50th place the prior year to 30th among the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is worst. The WWL report also cited Nicaragua’s legislative restrictions on religious freedom and the arrest or exile of religious leaders.
Mountain Gateway said in its press statement that its U.S. pastors “have nothing to hide and have requested to have an attorney appointed to represent them in this legal process.”
“Mountain Gateway does not understand why this is happening in a country that it loves dearly and has worked steadfastly to abide by the government’s regulations and laws,” the group stated. “While Mountain Gateway’s attorney and legal team are advising Mountain Gateway to trust the legal system, it does have questions. It appears this could be more politically motivated than legally motivated.”
Imprisoned were nine of Mountain Gateway’s Nicaraguan pastors: Marcos Sergio Hernández Jirón; Harry Lening Rios Bravo; Manuel de Jesús Ríos Flores; José Luis Orozco Urrutia; Álvaro Daniel Escobar Caldera; Juan Carlos Chavarría Zapata; Juan Luis Moncada; Orvin Alexis Moncada Castellano; César Facundo Burgalin Miranda.
The AP reported that the Prosecutor’s Office said in a press statement that 11 Nicaraguans were charged, along with the legal representative and financial manager of Puerta de la Montaña. Prosecutors claimed that detailed investigations into money laundering showed the 13 nationals were allegedly involved in appearing as representatives in the purchase of real estate.
The government of Daniel Ortega has closed or dissolved 342 religious organizations, including 256 evangelical Christian associations, 43 Catholic ones and 43 belonging to other churches, according to The AP, citing a December report by Nicaragua Never Again Human Rights Collective. Ortega has been president since 2007, after having previously led the country from 1979 to 1990.
The government has set a hearing for the Nicaraguan pastors on Jan. 26.
Mountain Gateway Order, Inc., based in Dripping Springs, Texas, states on its website that it focuses on discipling national leaders through house churches and corporate worship and training national pastors to reach the lost in their nation. Mountain Gateway also runs a ministry training school in the United States to teach believers to take the gospel into any context or culture.
“Since 2013, Mountain Gateway has served the citizens of Nicaragua through discipleship, church planting, feeding and clothing those in need, providing food, water, equipment, and recovery assistance during natural disasters, and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ in mass evangelistic campaigns,” the group said in its press statement.