Communist Nicaragua Sentences Christian Pastors to 12-15 Years in Prison on Holy Week

The communist regime in Nicaragua announced the conviction of 11 pastors associated with the Evangelical Mountain Gateway ministry and humanitarian organization, this week on dubious and unspecified charges of “money laundering,” sentencing the accused to between 12 and 15 years in prison.

Nicaragua – led by the radical Marxist Sandinista regime of Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo – officially convicted the pastors on March 19, but handed down the sentences on Wednesday. Two of those arrested, pastors Walner Omier Blandón Ochoa and wife Marisela de Fátima Mejía Ruiz, received 15-year sentences. The other ten – 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, and César Facundo Burgalin Miranda – received 12-year sentences. All faced charges of “aggravated money laundering.”

In addition, according to the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, the court imposed a fine of $80 million per pastor arrested – nearly a billion dollars in fines – and two attorneys attempting to aid in the defense of the Christians, Isabel Cristina Acevedo Solís and Maricarmen Espinoza Segura, were sentenced to ten years in prison and similarly fined tens of millions of dollars.

Both Mountain Gateway and ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organization, denounced the entire case as a “sham.” ADF International is helping Mountain Gateway appeal the case and presented the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights seeking measures to protect the prisoners of conscience.

“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,” the group said in a press release on Wednesday.

Nicaraguan exiles residing in Costa Rica participate in the “Via Crucis for Nicaragua” at the San Isidro de Coronado Church in San José on March 23, 2024.  (EZEQUIEL BECERRA/AFP via Getty Images)

“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,” the organization denounced. “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.”

The incident is the latest in a campaign of brutal and often violent repression of Christians in the majority-Christian country, timed to coincide with Holy Week in the non-Orthodox Christian world, a period during which Christians observe the crucifixion of Jesus and celebrate his resurrection.

The Sandinista regime has previously timed its acts of repression against the Christian faith to align with Christian holidays; the regime abruptly seized Mountain Gateway’s assets and arrested the pastors involved shortly before Christmas. Also in late December, Sandinista authorities arrested Catholic Bishop Isidoro Mora, as he had presided over a Mass during which those congregated prayed for imprisoned and persecuted members of the Catholic clergy.

A woman holds palm crosses to be blessed during a Palm Sunday mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua on March 24, 2024. (Photo by OSWALDO RIVAS / AFP)

A woman holds palm crosses to be blessed during a Palm Sunday mass at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Managua on March 24, 2024. (OSWALDO RIVAS / AFP)

The Sandinistas have also deployed police officers to silence Christians attempting to participate in traditional religious events such as the celebration in December of the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

The repression has not been limited to churches and faith organizations. Ortega has shut down more than 3,500 nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations since 2018, when mass anti-communist protests in the country, in part fueled by Christian teachings, erupted. The Ortega-Murillo regime killed more than 300 people in 2018 in response to the peaceful movement against their ideology.

Mountain Gateway is an organization founded by American Pastor Jon Britton Hancock that initially worked almost exclusively to offer humanitarian aid to Nicaraguans after natural disasters and advice and support to farmers in remote parts of the country. Last year, Hancock began organizing mass evangelizing events for prayer, reflection, and community, attracting as many as 200,000 people at a time.

“We saw a massive move of God involving hundreds of thousands of people. That has been a tremendous influence in the hearts of the people of Nicaragua,” Hancock told Breitbart News in February.

Mountain Gateway had announced plans for at least 13 evangelizing campaign events in the country in 2024, receiving no negative feedback from the government or any indication that it would face resistance. Before it could plan the events, however, their local pastors were arrested, accused of “money laundering” and “organized crime,” and the Sandinistas levied criminal charges against Hancock and two other Americans, son Jacob Britton Hancock and daughter-in-law Cassandra Mae Hancock, on unspecified charges.

“I do think that the size of the Gospel Campaigns and the amount of people they drew could be seen as threatening to the government,” Hancock told Breitbart News. “Again, I’m not sure why they are targeting us after we have worked to maintain a respectful relationship and abide by their policies and laws.”

On Wednesday, Hancock issued a statement reiterating the organization’s faith and confirming Mountain Gateway would continue its campaign to defend its pastors.

“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,” Hancock said. “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.”

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.


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