NICARAGUA: Eleven Nicaraguan pastors convicted of money laundering

Puerta de la Montaña pastorsOn 19 March, eleven pastors and ministry leaders with Puerta de la Montaña (a plant of US Christian ministry Mountain Gateway) were convicted of money laundering and organised crime at the Central Judicial Complex in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. The pastors, namely Harry Lening Rios Bravo, Álvaro Daniel Escobar Caldera, Orvin Alexis Moncada Castellano, Manuel de Jesús Ríos Flores, Marcos Sergio Hernández Jirón, César Facundo Burgalin Miranda, Juan Luis Moncada, Warner Omier Blandón Ochoa, Maricela de Fátima Mejía Ruiz, José Luis Orozco Urrutia, and Juan Carlos Chavarría Zapata, who have been imprisoned since December 2023, were sentenced to 12 or 15 years in prison and fined over 80 million US dollars each. The pastors were not granted due process during the legal proceedings, as they were barred from contacting legal representation or family members and their lawyers were denied access to case files and other relevant documentation. Despite the fact that no evidence was produced of the alleged illicit activity, they were convicted and the verdict was delivered by livestream as the pastors were prohibited from appearing in court.

Mountain Gateway

At the recent trial, three US citizens John Britton Hancock, Founder and President of Mountain Gateway, his son Jacob Britton Hancock and daughter-in-law Casandra Mae Hancock were also convicted of money laundering. Jacob and Casandra had been working as missionaries in Nicaragua with  Mountain Gateway, a mission organisation which was legally registered in Nicaragua in 2015 as “Puerta de la Montaña”. Its work includes discipleship, church planting, helping the poor and recovery assistance during natural disasters, as well as sharing the gospel in mass evangelistic campaigns. In 2023, Mountain Gateway held eight campaigns called “Cruzadas Buenas Nuevas Nicaragua 2023” (Good News Crusades Nicaragua), one with over one hundred thousand people in attendance. These campaigns were held with the assistance of the Nicaraguan government.

Following the arrests of the eleven pastors, Mountain Gateway spokesman Steve Lisby said in January 2024, “We believe the basis of the charges is not correct. Everything that we’ve been required to do by the Nicaraguan government in the manner of managing money, we’ve done that, and we have the documentation of that. We came to Nicaragua ‘cause we love the people and because we want to share with them Jesus.” 

US Christian legal advocacy group ADF International is supporting Mountain Gateway’s case and has made representations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of those who were convicted.

“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.


Even though 6.5 million of the 6.9 million people in Nicaragua are Christian (80% Catholic, 20% Protestant), they are becoming more vulnerable to persecution from the Nicaraguan government. Following nationwide anti-government protests in 2018, the government under President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, has become increasingly hostile to Christians, viewing them as political opponents. In the past five years the regime has particularly targeted the Catholic Church for acting as a sanctuary for political protesters and for criticising the government’s repression of democratic rights. The regime has arrested priests, expelled missionaries, shut down church-run public services, and revoked licenses of Catholic universities. In 2022 the Catholic Bishop Rolando Álvarez Lagos was sentenced to more than 26 years in prison for his criticism of human rights abuses. While the bishop was released from prison in January 2024, he was stripped of his nationality and expelled to the Vatican.

In the past two years, over 3,900 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been shut down by the Nicaraguan government forces including 256 evangelical associations, and twenty evangelical churches have been closed.

Joint Statement

This week Church in Chains signed a Statement on the Deteriorating Status of Religious Freedom in Nicaragua (circulated by the Religious Liberty Partnership of the World Evangelical Alliance) which calls on the Nicaraguan government to promptly release the eleven pastors.  It also urges the government to:

  • expunge any criminal charges since 2018 brought against clergy of all denominations
  • uphold the principles of religious freedom
  • refrain from targeting religious institutions and individuals for persecution or harassment
  • permit exiled citizens and missionaries to re-enter Nicaragua without fear of reprisal or harassment
  • protect the rights of NGOs to operate freely without fear of retaliation or false allegations

The statement was drafted by human rights organisation Jubilee Campaign and co-signed by Christian Freedom International and Freedom Seekers International.

(ADF International, Christian Daily, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Jubilee Campaign Mountain Gateway, Religious Liberty Partnership)