An American pastor wanted on dubious charges by the communist government of Nicaragua told Breitbart News on Wednesday that he believes his organization, Mountain Gateway, is the latest victim in a growing campaign to eradicate Christianity in the majority-Christian country.
Pastor Jon Britton Hancock explained that the Sandinista government told Mountain Gateway it was facing charges of “money laundering” and “organized crime” but has not published an indictment or clarified the alleged evidence backing the charges. Speaking to Breitbart News this week, Hancock confirmed that the Nicaraguan government is obstructing due process to such a degree that his organization does not even have the charging documents that say what crimes it allegedly committed. There is no public indictment. The imprisoned have been denied reasonable access to a legal defense. And the patterns of repressive behavior that Ortega has adopted against Christians suggest to Hancock that this is yet another case of Christian persecution in Nicaragua.
The arrests, Hancock said, interrupted a rapidly swelling wave of Christian fervor in the nation that Mountain Gateway was intimately involved in stirring.
“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 said.
Police arrested 11 pastors associated with Mountain Gateway in December: Walner Omier Blandón Ochoa, Maricela de Fátima Mejía Ruiz, 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.
They have also sought the arrest of Hancock, his son Jacob Britton Hancock, and daughter-in-law Cassandra Mae Hancock, all American citizens who work in Christian ministry.
In a press release on Wednesday, Mountain Gateway emphasized that it “does not understand the complexity of what is happening” and especially questioned why 9 of the 11 pastors arrested remain behind bars when the Nicaraguan government itself says they “are innocent, but claims they were under the control of the three U.S. citizens and two of the imprisoned Nicaraguan pastors.”
“It’s hard to understand this allegation because the government has viewed and approved our funding as it entered the country,” Hancock told Breitbart News this week. “We have documentation outlining our submission for approval of ministry operations funds and for those funds’ approval.”
The anti-Christian context of the political situation in Nicaragua suggests that the charges are part of a greater ambition to erase the faith from the country. In 2018, massive anti-communist protests erupted in the country, peaceful in nature and often backed by local priests in Catholic communities. Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, responded with outsized violence, killing more than 300 people. The visible presence of the Catholic Church in supporting the protests led Ortega to declare the Vatican a terrorist organization and accuse it of attempting to stage a coup against his regime – even as the Vatican largely remained silent and the opposition voices were local Nicaraguan priests.
Nicaragua’s population is about 50 percent Roman Catholic and 33 percent evangelical Christian, with small minorities of other religions. As the largest Christian community and one directly associated with anti-communist resistance since 2018, the Catholics have seen a tremendous wave of repression: 97 priests exiled, universities and religious media shut down, the expulsion of the Jesuit order entirely, and the banning of traditional Catholic practices.
The Catholics are not alone, however: Ortega has shut down more than 3,500 nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations since 2018, a large percentage of them Christian. Hancock told Breitbart News that the atmosphere for Christians in Nicaragua is fraught with tension, as many fear that one wrong word could send them to prison.
“Since 2018, the Nicaraguan government has revoked the registration of over 3,000 nonprofit organizations, so we are not in the boat alone,” Hancock said. “They have been particularly harsh to Christan organizations, both Catholic and evangelical.”
“We do indeed feel solidarity with the Catholic priests who were imprisoned. The government has systematically removed hundreds of faith-based organizations over the last several years,” he added. “Our Organization has now been removed from Nicaragua, and we have pastors that have been imprisoned unjustly.”
“Yes, I believe Christians are being persecuted in Nicaragua. We worked with thousands of pastors during the Gospel Campaigns in 2023,” he continued, “and I don’t think that we interacted with any of them without them expressing the reality of having to maintain extreme caution for what they do and say in public, especially about the government.”
“The sense that we have gotten from the people of Nicaragua is that there is no freedom of speech, that government surveillance is common and widespread, and that the consequences for saying something negative about the government are severe,” Hancock noted. “I met many people that knew of pastors being arrested. There is a general fear of this as pastors influence people.”
Hancock and his wife, Audrey, founded Mountain Gateway in 2009 and began their tenth year of service in Nicaragua in 2023. While the vast majority of their work there was humanitarian – natural disaster response, support for impoverished rural communities, and other basic charity services – the organization launched a new initiative in 2023: a series of mass evangelism events offering a path of Christian worship for seekers to experience the grace of God.
“Since 2013, we have 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 most recently, sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in mass evangelistic campaigns,” Hancock told Breitbart News. “Whenever there has been a need in the nation, whether it be a natural disaster or someone’s truck getting stuck on the side of the mountain, we have worked to aid and serve the people of Nicaragua.”
The mass evangelistic campaigns were a new direction for Mountain Gateway but one Hancock said was necessitated by a direct calling from God: “We were not blind to what was happening around us and to other nonprofit organizations, but when God says to preach the Gospel in a nation, I’m not going to argue with Him; I am going to go.”
They consisted of outdoor events featuring hundreds of thousands of people worshipping, singing, and testifying about their faith.
“At every event, the presence of God was undeniable,” he continued. “I think they were so popular because God showed up at every time, and people encountered Him. Thousands of people were healed, delivered from spiritual oppression, and, most importantly, they declared Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.”
The campaigns were a success that garnered global attention: about 200,000 people attended several of the events; Mountain Gateway estimated that nearly one million people had joined the movement by November. The government not only tolerated the events but appeared to endorse them with the presence of several high-ranking officials. The tolerance for such displays of faith in Jesus contrasted sharply with the growing persecution of political dissidents, many of them prominent clergymen, and Ortega’s very public declaration of war on the Catholic faith.
By the end of the year, Mountain Gateway announced that it had begun organizing 13 more campaigns throughout Nicaragua for 2024. Then – very suddenly – the government’s tolerance ended. The Ortega regime arrested the 11 Mountain Gateway pastors in mid-December, accusing them of money laundering and “organized crime.”
“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 said, but emphasized, “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.”
He explained the nature of the threat as Christianity’s call for freedom.
“The Gospel changes hearts, and it changes people’s thinking. Freedom of choice is at the core of Christianity because Christianity is about a love relationship between God and man,” the pastor explained. “Love, if it’s genuine, has no coercion or dominance in it. It does not use force to accomplish its means. Love requires unfettered decision-making ability.”
Hancock expressed hope that the U.S. State Department could aid his organization.
“We want the Department of State to help us get immediate release for our 11 pastors and help us secure safe passage and sanctuary to a nation where they can continue to share the Good News of Jesus Christ,” he told Breitbart News, adding that Mountain Gateway was seeking diplomatic avenues to resolving the conflict with the Sandinista regime. “We also want them to help us get the unsubstantiated charges against our U.S. and Nicaraguan pastors dismissed.”