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Amid Catholic Crackdown, Nicaragua Closes 250 Evangelical Ministries

Mountain Gateway became the latest Christian ministry to run afoul of the Ortega regime.
Amid Catholic Crackdown, Nicaragua Closes 250 Evangelical Ministries
Image: Jose Cordero / Contributor / Getty
Crosses on top of a Nicaraguan flag.

When Hurricanes Hilary and Idalia flooded Nicaragua’s coast last August and September, evangelical ministries in the country stepped up and served.

President Daniel Ortega and his wife, vice president Rosario Murillo, had expelled the Red Cross from their country last July after the organization had criticized the country for its inhuman treatment of prisoners. The departure had left a gap in humanitarian aid for the country.

One of these Christians organizations that came through was Mountain Gateway. The American missions and development agency was one of many that helped organize a major event that started out by providing emergency aid like food, clothing, and medicines, and continued as a major evangelistic campaign where thousands heard the proclamation of the gospel.

The event, called Buenas Nuevas Nicaragua (Good News Nicaragua), united more than 1,300 evangelical churches from 13 of Nicaragua’s 15 departments in a massive two-day evangelistic event in the capital, Managua, last November. Local news estimated that up to 300,000 people attended the gathering, and despite ongoing tensions between the Ortega administration and churches, a pro-government publication even highlighted the event.

But the gathering’s success in sharing spiritual encouragement and provisions ultimately had little effect on softening the government’s latest crusade against Christian ministries.

Since 2018, the Ortega administration has imprisoned and exiled Catholic priests who have criticized the regime. But as the population of Nicaraguan evangelicals has grown, so has persecution of the evangelical church. A report recently published by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) registered 310 severe violations of freedom of religion or belief between November 2022 and January 2024, and according to Nicaragua Nunca Más, since 2018, the government has closed a total of 256 evangelical organizations, with the majority shutting down in 2022.

Weeks after Buenas Nuevas Nicaragua, the government ordered the closure of Mountain Gateway’s 10 churches and arrested 11 of their pastors, accusing them of money laundering.

Nicaraguan authorities have cited this reason numerous times in the past. Since 2018, it has closed 3,390 non-governmental organizations (10% of them foreign) for “money laundering,” according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And in 2022, the government shut down 20 evangelical churches on similar grounds.

Even with increased persecution and false accusations, however, many local Protestant pastors and foreign ministry leaders have largely chosen to keep quiet.

But for Britt Hancock, who founded Mountain Gateway in 2009, these accusations don’t make sense.

“We have not been given any charging documents to know what our US pastors and our Nicaraguan pastors are being charged with, so we have no explanation for what is happening,” Hancock told CT. “We don’t understand the complexity of it all, especially since we have worked to maintain a respectful relationship and abide by their policies and laws.”

“Last year, as we worked with our pastors, I don’t think any of those we interacted with expressed any idea that we needed to demonstrate extreme caution when preaching the gospel.”

Different pages

The Mountain Gateway case is just one of the most recent examples of government repression of evangelicals, who now make up 38 percent of Nicaragua’s population of 6.4 million. One of the earliest examples was that of Rudy Palacios, whose church in La Roca had 1,500 members and six different sites. But after accompanying his children at a 2018 march, the government accused him of terrorism and forced him into exile.

In 2023, Open Doors ranked Nicaragua No. 50 on its annual list of the most dangerous countries in which to be a Christian. In 2024, the Central American country had jumped to No. 30.

Despite these reports, evangelicals aren’t all on the same page about the government’s actions.

“There is no persecution against evangelicals in my Nicaragua,” Douglas Valerio, a pastor who leads a small Pentecostal church in the Iglesias Care network in Jinotepe, 45 kilometers (about 28 miles) from Managua, told CT. “After the marches and road blockades that destabilized the country in 2018, Commander Ortega’s government took measures to reduce foreign interference in politics.”

One of these measures was a law passed in 2022 that seeks to prevent organizations from being used for “money laundering and terrorist financing.” Mountain Gateway violated this, says Valerio.

“It has been proven that in 2018, a lot of money came in through various NGOs to finance those who were protesting and blocking the roads,” he said. “When Mountain Gateway could not explain the origin of so much money used in the Buenas Nuevas Nicaragua campaign, the authorities enforced the law.”

Isaías Martínez, a Presbyterian pastor and Central America coordinator of the Seminario Reformado Latinoamericano (SRL), agrees with Valerio.

“We have freedom of belief and religion in Nicaragua,” he said. “But since 2018, if a pastor speaks against the government, especially on social media, there could be consequences. It is better that we dedicate ourselves to preaching the Word of God and not get involved in politics.”

Pastors who do believe that the government is unfairly treating Christian organizations may be afraid to speak up or may prefer to maintain a distance between their congregation and the political situation in the country.

One pastor of a small congregation in Managua has had his church’s bank account frozen and received violent threats for not promoting pro-government events.

“Those who say there is no persecution do not understand what persecution is,” he said. “We pastors avoid talking about politics in our sermons because we know that among the people who listen to us there may be state agents who accuse us of violating the law.”

For the Managua pastor, the Mountain Gateway situation shows the government’s fear of losing power in the next elections. Regional elections will be held on March 3 and presidential elections will be held at the end of 2026.

“The government is afraid that the church will unify and produce a candidate who will win the elections,” he said. “That is why they were afraid when Mountain Gateway gathered hundreds of thousands of people in a single event.”

Before 2018, some evangelical pastors campaigned for Ortega, who considered them allies, offering those that might have spoken out against his administration’s treatment of Catholics with preferred bureaucratic treatment.

This change in attitude of the Ortega and Murillo regime toward Catholics and evangelicals has been studied by Teresa Flores, director of the Observatory of Religious Freedom in Latin America.

“As the evangelical church does not have a unified leadership, the persecution is different and more difficult to perceive than that of the Catholic church. It is a more diverse community,” she explained to CT from Peru.

“As for evangelicals, we also know that there is an underreporting of persecution. Many pastors who have been threatened or attacked prefer not to report, because they know that if they do, the consequences could be worse,” she said, adding that “this doesn’t mean they’re free. They just don’t want to get involved for fear of government hostility.”

“The regime has treated the Catholic hierarchy and evangelical hierarchy differently,” Nicaraguan activist and award-winning cartoonist Pedro Molina told CT. “The evangelical political leaders had been pacified by having privileges granted, such as permits to hold events and open schools, in addition to obtaining licenses for television channels and radio stations.”

Molina, who now lives in New York and has been in exile since 2018, accused the pastors in his cartoons of receiving a “bloody tithe.”

One of the likely subjects of his cartoons is pastor Guillermo Osorno Molina (no relation), who at one time had his own radio stations, a TV channel, and even a political party called Camino Cristiano Nicaragüense (Nicaraguan Christian Road; CCN).

But in 2022 Osorno decided to challenge Ortega and ran as his party’s presidential candidate. In response, the government shut down his channel, Enlace Canal 21, on financial charges, after a broadcast claimed there had been electoral fraud in the 2022 presidential elections. In addition, Osorno was prohibited from leaving the country, and the government outlawed his political party.

Repression increases

Nicaragua has a long history of repressive governments. The Somoza family ran the country under a military dictatorship from 1947 to 1979, until the communist guerrilla group Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front; FSLN), where Daniel Ortega served as one of the main commanders, successfully staged a coup d’état.

Ortega is currently ruling his fifth term as president. He first served between 1985 and 1990, then returned to power in 2007. Since then, he has been reelected three more times, though some have claimed election fraud.

The Catholic church has a long history of involvement in Nicaraguan politics, including supporting the Sandinistas when they first took power in the 1980s. In this current term, Ortega enjoyed relative popularity and a more or less cordial relationship with both Catholics and evangelicals until 2018.

Things changed in April that year, when the government announced unwelcome changes in the public pension system. Police and paramilitary groups met many of the tens of thousands who took to the streets with tear gas and rubber bullets and worse, with at least 350 people killed. Religious leaders went from being mediators of the conflict to becoming protectors of young people fleeing violent repressions and finding refuge in church buildings, as Flores described in an article for the International Journal of Religious Freedom.

But these actions were seen by the government as treason, thus giving them grounds to arrest priests and pastors. When some Catholic clergy became vocal against the government, Ortega began to close organizations and to arrest or exile priests.

This growing wave of religious persecution has been well documented since 2018 by Nicaraguan lawyer Martha Patricia Molina Montenegro, a 2024 winner of the International Religious Freedom Award granted by the United States Department of State.

“In Nicaragua, there is hatred on the part of the Ortega-Murillo dictatorship toward the pastoral work carried out by both Catholic priests and evangelical pastors,” Molina, the Nicaraguan activist, told CT. “The regime needs a church that kneels before them. Since they have not achieved this, they persecute Christians.”

Molina, who has been in exile since 2021 and now lives in Texas, has documented 667 attacks on Catholic churches and 70 on evangelical ones between 2018 and 2023. These attacks are not limited to physical attacks on church infrastructure, including also graffiti theft, and vandalism; prohibitions on some religious activities, like processions and Masses; and death threats, forced exile, and expulsion of religious nationals and foreign workers.

Though Ortega is technically president and his wife is technically vice president, they are essentially co-dictators, says Molina, the cartoonist.

He says that the couple aspires to another level of authority over the population. “[She and her husband] want people to listen to them not only as political leaders but also as divine leaders,” he added. “They want people to not only obey them but also worship them.”

Though Ortega and Murillo’s cult of personality has attracted few evangelicals, their government’s actions have increasingly made it hard for the growing community to find unity.

“The government’s aim is not simply to silence the voice of Christians but, given their influence in the country, to hinder their credibility and to stop their message from spreading,” stated an Open Doors 2024 report. “It should be noted that while many Christians are in the firing line, there are a minority of believers who either out of fear or conviction are choosing to keep quiet. Among some church communities, this is causing division.”

Despite the attacks against the church in Nicaragua, the population of that country continues to be receptive to the message of Jesus.

“The spiritual climate in Nicaragua during the mass evangelism campaigns was one of the most extraordinary examples of John 17 unity between all denominations and movements I have ever seen,” said Hancock, Mountain Gateway’s founder.

“Every pastor we engaged with was infused with excitement over the fact that so many new believers were in their churches. Their church members were motivated in ways to share their faith as they never had been, and their buildings were out of space to hold all the new people directly following each campaign.”

Hernán Restrepo is a Colombian journalist who lives in Bogotá. As of 2021, he manages the social media accounts for Christianity Today in Spanish.

[ This article is also available in español. ]

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