NICARAGUA: Protestant, Catholic, Critic, Ally: No-one is safe

Forb in Full (21.05.2024) – On Tuesday 12 December 2023, Nicaraguan security forces carried out an operation that would see 11 Protestant leaders arrested and detained across the country by the end of the day. The organisation with which the leaders were affiliated, Mountain Gateway, a Protestant organisation based out of Texas, and which has operated legally in Nicaragua since 2015 under the name Puerta de la Montana, was stripped of its legal status, and its assets, including 47 vehicles and four properties, were confiscated by the government.

One month later, the government announced that it was pursuing criminal charges against those detained as well as three United States citizens (in absentia), on accusations of money laundering and organised crime. Show trials, in which the government produced no evidence to back up the charges, were held, and in March 2024, the 11 detainees were sentenced to between 12 and 15 years in prison and fined $80 million US dollars.

International outrage was immediate and sustained. Mountain Gateway has published numerous statements decrying the arrest of its leaders and expressing incomprehension at the false charges, referencing the positive relationship organisation had with the Nicaraguan government up until shortly before the December arrests. Members of the United States Congress have called for the release of the imprisoned Mountain Gateway church leaders, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has added them to the Frank B. Wolf Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims List, and the Inter American Commission for Human Rights has granted precautionary measures in favour of the Mountain Gateway prisoners.

There is no question that the group has suffered serious human rights violations. The case has helped to expand scrutiny of violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) experienced by the Roman Catholic Church, which has been brutally and systematically targeted by the Nicaraguan government over the past few years, to the experience of other religious groups, including Protestants, who, according to various surveys, now make up around 40% of the population.

Because of the high profile of the Mountain Gateway case, however, there is a risk that it may be interpreted as emblematic of the experience of Protestants in Nicaragua, or as an anomaly. It is neither. 

Over the past few years, Protestant Christians’ experiences of FoRB violations have received far less attention than those of the Roman Catholic Church, both domestically and internationally. There are various reasons for this. Many are connected to the nature of the two groups, specifically the Roman Catholic Church’s structure, as a single religious organisation spread geographically across the country and with a clear and very public facing hierarchy. In contrast, the Protestant Church, is made up of many different denominations and independent churches, some of which may be dominant in one part of the country and absent in another, and which do not necessarily work together or even communicate with one another.

For the most part, the regime of President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, has responded to these two realities strategically, with a full-frontal assault on the Roman Catholic Church, especially targeting the hierarchy, and reserving more subtle but no less effective tactics targeting individual Protestant churches and their leaders.

Violations reported by Protestant leaders are similar in many ways to those experienced by their Roman Catholic compatriots. These include restrictions on the length, location, and frequency of religious services, a ban on public activities, government interference with religious activities in the form of disruption or acts of intimidation, the planting of informants in congregations, and the forced closure and confiscation of affiliated educational institutions and local charities.

Such violations affecting Protestants are widespread and common, but all too often go unreported. The victims either lack relevant internal structures within their denomination and have no idea to whom they should report the FoRB violations they have experienced or are experiencing, or they are too afraid, citing the not unlikely outcome that, by doing so, they will exacerbate the situation, putting themselves, family members, or members of their congregations at risk of violence, arbitrary detention or forced disappearance.

The government’s relentless targeting of the Roman Catholic Church has continued into 2024, despite the imprisonment and forced exile of scores of its leaders. Many lay leaders remain in prison. Similarly, in the first quarter of the year, CSW has documented the forced closure and confiscation of numerous Protestant institutions and properties including churches, local charities, media outlets and schools in different parts of the country. Although those affected have been willing to report their experiences to CSW, in every case they have done so with the understanding that the details will be kept confidential for the reasons outlined above.

The Nicaraguan government has also borrowed strategies from the Cuban government, seeking to create an illusion of respect for FoRB, in part by fomenting division within the Protestant Church, elevating some groups or leaders for privileged treatment in return for their public support of the regime, including denials that the government violates FoRB in any way.  

While the requests of many Protestant churches and denominations across the country, like their Roman Catholic counterparts, to hold public events are systematically refused, others, like the Ríos de Agua Vivo Ministries, whose leader Reverend Omar Duarte was present as a guest of honour at President Ortega’s 2022 inauguration, and The Billy Graham Foundation, were authorised on multiple occasions in 2023 to hold large-scale public events, often carried out with the approval and overt support of the government, including the allocation of government funds and visible presence of high ranking officials.

At the same time as the government has been systematically shutting down, stripping the legal status and confiscating the properties of Roman Catholic and Protestant run schools of all levels – from pre-school to university, a few Protestant groups have been invited by the government into primary and secondary schools, where they have proselytized assemblies of students and teachers while also cynically promoting support for the president and vice president.

The Ministries of Fire Nicaragua (Ministerios de Fuego Nicaragua), for example, has published numerous images and videos on its social media accounts showing pastors from its Apostolic and Prophetic Eagles in Conquest Foundation inside primary and public schools in Estelí Department holding evangelistic campaigns, hosting parties and encouraging students and teachers in the presence of school administrative officers to convert. In at least one video, the pastor tells the students that President Ortega and Vice-President Murillo are ‘like kings that God put in Nicaragua to govern’ and that as such they should be obeyed and honoured.1

Mountain Gateway was one of these groups, supportive of and supported by the Nicaraguan regime, until only a few months ago. It is still unclear what changed in the relationship between the Mountain Gateway group and the Nicaraguan government and speculation has run rampant. Unlike the myriad cases involving imprisoned Roman Catholic bishops, priests and lay leaders who have been critical of the government and its policies or made public calls for respect for  FoRB, those affiliated with the Mountain Gateway group regularly voiced their enthusiasm for the regime of President Ortega and Vice-President Murillo.

In a 2020 event with leaders of the National Police, including some directly implicated in serious human rights violations, Pastor Walner Omier Blandón, one of the 11 imprisoned Mountain Gateway leaders, praised Ortega and Murillo as well as the police, declaring that ‘everyone must submit to public authorities, for there is no authority that God has not arranged; so those that exist were established by him… [in the police] I see a life of service, dedication and love to the Nicaraguan people and [the Nicaraguan people] must submit to their authorities and also obey the highest authority, which is God.’2 In 2023, Mountain Gateway held eight large scale events across the country, not only with permission but with the active support and engagement of the Nicaraguan authorities.

In the dearth of clear reasons for the government’s attack on the Mountain Gateway group, many Nicaraguan religious leaders, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, and human rights organisations have appeared conflicted when it comes to speaking out about the case. Some leaders have expressed a fear that that the case has overshadowed the ongoing experiences of the many Protestant leaders who have been quietly carrying out their work over the last few years despite threats and intimidation. Others remain suspicious of the group given its history of support for the regime. Whatever the reasons behind the government’s turn on the Mountain Gateway group, however, it is clear that the 11 leaders did not receive fair trials and serious violations of human rights have been committed.

While the case is unusual in many ways, the government’s targeting of the Mountain Gateway group must still be understood within the larger crackdown on independent civil society, including on the Roman Catholic Church and on Protestant groups. It is not slowing down, and it is not growing less harsh. Discretion, attempting to stay carefully within the parameters of the law, avoiding ‘politics’, and remaining silent in the face of injustice experienced by others will no longer be sufficient to keep one and one’s religious group safe. Neither will obsequiousness. If the Ortega Murillo regime can come for Mountain Gateway, they can come for anyone, at any moment. The government is blasting out a clear, unambiguous message to all religious groups: no one is safe in Nicaragua.

By CSW’s Head of Advocacy and Americas Team Leader Anna Lee Stangl

Further reading about FORB in Nicaragua on HRWF website