Nicaraguan Government Urged to Safeguard Lives of Pastors and Ministry Leaders

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has urgently demanded the Nicaraguan government to safeguard the lives and health of 11 pastors and ministry leaders who have been imprisoned on questionable legal grounds. The decision follows a petition filed by the legal advocacy group ADF International, which has brought significant international attention to their plight. These religious leaders were sentenced to lengthy prison terms ranging from 12 to 15 years and fined more than $80 million each on charges of money laundering, the group said in a statement. ADF International legal counsel Kristina Hjelkrem expressed gratitude for the Commission’s swift action, reflecting the gravity of the situation. “No person should be imprisoned or punished for their faith, but that is exactly what has happened with these religious leaders. It is our prayer that Nicaraguan authorities will uphold the human rights and dignity of these pastors, and that they will release them from their wrongful imprisonment.”

The arrests originated from a December 2023 crackdown when Nicaraguan police accused these individuals of using their religious organization, Puerta de la Montaña, as a front for laundering money. This branch of the U.S.-based Mountain Gateway ministry had been actively involved in large Evangelical campaigns throughout Nicaragua, reportedly drawing over a million people. The trial, which led to the harsh sentences in March, was conducted behind closed doors and marred by a notable lack of credible evidence, according to observers. The ministry and its supporters have vehemently denied the charges, asserting their operations were lawful and transparent. In January, Mountain Gateway 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 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 time. The ministry added that the government had 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 defence.” Mountain Gateway stated 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. In a separate case, Bishop Rolando Álvarez has also been a victim of this crackdown. Sentenced to 26 years and now in exile, his case is seen as part of a larger governmental strategy to suppress dissenting religious voices. Open Doors has also highlighted the escalating persecution of Christians in Nicaragua, especially since the 2018 anti-regime protests.

The government’s crackdown has included arrests of Christian leaders, seizure of Christian properties and closures of Christian schools, TV stations and charities. Legal amendments have branded church leaders as terrorists, with the government aiming to control church finances. The international response to the pastors’ arrest has been one of alarm and condemnation. U.S. Sens. Rick Scott, R-Fla., Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Alabama Republicans Katie Britt and Tommy Tuberville have been outspoken in their support for the imprisoned pastors, urging the Biden administration to implement strong, targeted sanctions against the Nicaraguan government. Similarly, Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., led a bipartisan group of 58 members of Congress in a letter to the Nicaraguan ambassador, expressing deep concerns over these violations of religious freedom.

Source: Christian Post

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