RELIGION IN LAOS

RELIGION IN LAOS

Around 67 percent of the country’s population are Buddhist, other religions including animism accounted for about 30.9 percent,1.5 percent are Christians and less than 1 percent are Muslims and Bahai. Catholics make up 0.6 percent of the population.

Every town and village has a Buddhist temple (wat or vat) and saffron-robed monks everywhere. The majority of Laotian also believe in spirits. Most Buddhist are lowland Lao and some tribal groups. The hill tribes (15 percent) mostly practice animism mixed with ancestor worship. A small number have converted to Christianity. Some of the remaining members of the French-educated elite are also Christians. Proselytizing is frowned upon by the government and missionaries and evangelical groups have not made as much headway in Laos as they have in other places. There are a few Muslims. They are mostly of Arab, South Asian and Cham descent.

Most lowland Lao and some midland groups practice Theravada Buddhism, but also believe in spirits of places or of deceased persons. Upland and most midland ethnic groups are animist, with religious practices oriented toward protective or guardian spirits commonly associated with places or with a family or clan. Shamans or other spirit practitioners are recognized and respected for their divinatory and healing powers among most ethnic groups, whether Buddhist or not. *

Theravada Buddhism is the faith of nearly all of the ethnic or "lowland" Lao population, who constitute only 40-50 percent of the overall population of the country. The remainder of the population belongs to at least 48 distinct ethnic minority groups. Most of these ethnic minorities are practitioners of animism and ancestor worship, with beliefs that vary greatly among groups. Animism is predominant among most Sino-Thai groups, such as the Thai Dam and Thai Daeng, as well as among Mon-Khmer and Burmo-Tibetan groups. Even among lowland Lao, many pre-Buddhist animistic beliefs have been incorporated into Theravada Buddhist practice. Roman Catholics and Protestants constitute approximately 2 percent of the population. Other minority religious groups include those practicing the Baha'i Faith, Islam, Mahayana Buddhism, and Confucianism. A very small number of citizens follow no religion. [Source: International Religious Freedom, 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, East Asia and Pacific, Laos; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; October 26, 2009 **]

The various religious communities generally coexist amicably. Society places importance on harmonious relations, and the dominant Buddhist faith generally is tolerant of other religious practices. Local cultural mores generally instilled respect for longstanding, well-known differences in belief. However, interreligious tensions arose on some occasions within some minority ethnic groups, particularly in response to proselytizing or disagreements over rights to village resources. Efforts of some congregations to establish churches independent of the LEC or associated with denominations based abroad led to some tensions within the Protestant community. Frictions also arose over the refusal of some members of minority religious groups, particularly Protestants, to participate in Buddhist or animist religious ceremonies. **

See Separate Articles on Buddhism, Animism and Religious Persecution in Laos

Freedom of Religion and the Constitution of Laos

Buddhism and other religions are overseen by the Department of Religious Affairs. Religion and Communism have traditionally been incompatible because Communism is atheist. The Communist government has been tolerant of Buddhist practices bit strongly discourages animist rituals. However screens al Buddhist texts and overseas the training on Buddhist monks.

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, other laws and policies, particularly at the local level, sometimes violate this right. Article 30 of the Constitution provides for freedom of religion, a fact frequently cited by officials in reference to religious tolerance. Article 9 of the Constitution, however, discourages all acts that create divisions among religious groups and persons. The Government has interpreted this clause to justify restrictions on religious practice by all religious groups, including the Buddhist majority and animists. Both local and central government officials widely refer to Article 9 as a reason for placing constraints on religious practice, especially proselytizing and the expansion of Protestantism among minority groups. The Constitution also notes that the state "mobilizes and encourages" Buddhist monks and novices as well as priests of other religions to participate in activities "beneficial to the nation and the people." Although official pronouncements acknowledge the positive benefits of religion and the existence of different religious groups, they emphasize religion's potential to divide, distract, and destabilize. [Source: International Religious Freedom, 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, East Asia and Pacific, Laos; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; October 26, 2009 **]

Decree 92 is the principal legal instrument defining rules for religious practice. Decree 92 defines the Government's role as the final arbiter of permissible religious activities. Although this decree has contributed to greater religious tolerance since it was promulgated in 2002, authorities have used its many conditions to restrict some aspects of religious practice, particularly at the provincial and district levels. **

In its 20 articles, Decree 92 establishes guidelines for religious activities in a broad range of areas. While the decree provides that the Government "respects and protects legitimate activities of believers," it also seeks to ensure that religious practice "conforms to the laws and regulations." Decree 92 legitimizes proselytizing by Lao citizens, printing religious materials, owning and building houses of worship, and maintaining contact with overseas religious groups; however, all of these rights are contingent upon a strict approval process. Decree 92 reserves for the LFNC the "right and duty to manage and promote" religious practice, requiring that nearly all aspects of religious practice receive the approval of an LFNC branch office. Some cases require approval from the central-level LFNC. In practice, the Government used the approval process to restrict the religious activities of certain groups and effectively limited or prevented some religious denominations from importing Bibles and religious materials as well as constructing houses of worship. Many minority religious leaders complained that the requirement to obtain permission, sometimes from several different offices, for a broad range of activities greatly limited their freedom. **

Lao Government and Religion

The Government officially recognized four religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha'i Faith. Recognized Christian groups include the Catholic Church, the LEC, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Although Decree 92 establishes procedures for new denominations to register, the Government's desire to consolidate religious practice for purposes of control has effectively blocked new registrations. The LFNC's Order Number 1 of March 2004 required all Protestant groups to become a part of the LEC or the Seventh-day Adventist Church. The order stated that no other Christian denominations would be permitted to register, a measure to prevent "disharmony" in the religious community. Although denominations not registered with the LFNC are not legally allowed to practice their faith, several do so quietly without interference. [Source: International Religious Freedom, 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, East Asia and Pacific, Laos; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; October 26, 2009 **]

The Government required several religious groups, apparently with the exception of Buddhists and Catholics, to report membership information periodically to the Religious Affairs Department of the LFNC. The Government also maintained restrictions on the publication of religious materials that applied to most religious groups, except for Buddhists. Although the Government does not recognize an official state religion, the Government's exemption of Buddhism from many of the Decree 92 restrictions, sponsorship of Buddhist facilities, increased incorporation of Buddhist ritual and ceremony in state functions, and promotion of Buddhism as an element of the country's cultural and spiritual identity gave Theravada Buddhism an elevated status. **

Both the Constitution and Decree 92 assert that religious practice should serve national interests by promoting development and education and instructing believers to be good citizens. The Government presumed both a right and a duty to oversee religious practice at all levels to ensure religious practice fills these roles in society. In effect this has led the authorities, particularly at the provincial, district, and local levels, to intervene in the activities of minority religious groups, particularly Protestants, on the grounds that their practices did not promote national interests or demonstrated disloyalty to the Government. **

There was no religious instruction in public schools, nor were there any parochial or religiously affiliated schools. However, several private preschools and English- language schools received support from religious groups abroad. Many boys spent some time in Buddhist temples, where they received instruction in religion as well as academics. Temples traditionally have filled the role of schools and continued to play this role in smaller communities where formal education was limited or unavailable. Christian denominations, particularly the LEC and Seventh-day Adventists, operated Sunday schools for children and young persons. Baha'i Spiritual Assemblies conducted religious training for children as well as adult members. The Muslim community offered limited educational training for its children. **

The Government generally did not interfere with citizens wishing to travel abroad for short-term religious training. The Government observes the That Luang Festival and the Lao New Year, which have religious overtones, as national holidays. The Government generally allowed major religious festivals of all established congregations without hindrance, and government officials attended some Buddhist religious festivals in their official capacity. **

Animism in Laos

The highland ethnic minorities practice animism, which emphasizes a reverence for all living things. The Lao have also incorporated animism into their religion beliefs. In some of the main temples in Vientiane and other cities the main object of devotion is not a Buddha figure but a lak meuang (city pillar), regarded as the dwelling place for guardian spirit of the city.

The Lao believe spirits called phi (similar to nats in Myanmar) inhabit certain places such as rivers, mountains, rice fields and groves of trees. Villages also have titulary spirits and a goddess of the rice crop. The spirits, especially the rice goddess, are honored with regular offerings. Beliefs in phi are particularly strong among tribal Thais, especially the Thai Dam, who revere earth spirits called ten .

It is widely believed to be that malevolent spirts and ghosts can possess people and bring illnesses. They can be exorcized by spirit doctors. Spirit practitioners are usually elderly men. Mediums can be of both sexes. Spirit practitioners preside over weddings, birth-related rituals and numerous informal ceremonies call basi or sou khouan , which are held to mark thing like the recovery from an illness, construction of a new home or departure in a journey.

While animists generally experienced little interference from the Government in their religious practices, the Government actively discouraged animist practices that it deemed outdated, unhealthful, or illegal, such as the practice in some tribes of killing children born with defects or burying the bodies of deceased relatives underneath homes. In some areas where animism predominated among ethnic minority groups, local authorities have actively encouraged those groups to adopt Buddhism and abandon their beliefs in magic and spirits which the authorities considered "backward." [Source: International Religious Freedom, 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, East Asia and Pacific, Laos; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; October 26, 2009]

Lao Animist Beliefs

Despite the importance of Buddhism to Lao Loum and some Lao Theung groups, animist beliefs are widespread among all segments of the Lao population. The belief in phi (spirits) colors the relationships of many Lao with nature and community and provides one explanation for illness and disease. Belief in phi is blended with Buddhism, particularly at the village level, and some monks are respected as having particular abilities to exorcise malevolent spirits from a sick person or to keep them out of a house. Many wat have a small spirit hut built in one corner of the grounds that is associated with the phi khoun wat, the beneficent spirit of the monastery. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]

Phi are ubiquitous and diverse. Some are connected with the universal elements--earth, heaven, fire, and water. Many Lao Loum also believe that they are being protected by khwan (thirty-two spirits). Illness occurs when one or more of these spirits leaves the body; this condition may be reversed by the soukhwan--more commonly called the baci--a ceremony that calls all thirty-two khwan back to bestow health, prosperity, and well-being on the affected participants. Cotton strings are tied around the wrists of the participants to keep the spirits in place. The ceremony is often performed to welcome guests, before and after making long trips, and as a curing ritual or after recovery from an illness; it is also the central ritual in the Lao Loum wedding ceremony and naming ceremony for newborn children. *

Many Lao believe that the khwan of persons who die by accident, violence, or in childbirth are not reincarnated, becoming instead phi phetu (malevolent spirits). Animist believers also fear wild spirits of the forests. Other spirits associated with specific places such as the household, the river, or a grove of trees are neither inherently benevolent nor evil. However, occasional offerings ensure their favor and assistance in human affairs. In the past, it was common to perform similar rituals before the beginning of the farming season to ensure the favor of the spirit of the rice. These ceremonies, beginning in the late 1960s, were discouraged by the government as successive areas began to be liberated. This practice had apparently died out by the mid1980s , at least in the extended area around Vientiane. *

Ceremonies oriented to the phi commonly involve an offering of a chicken and rice liquor. Once the phi have taken the spiritual essence of the offering, people may consume the earthly remains. The head of a household or the individual who wants to gain the favor of the spirit usually performs the ritual. In many villages, a person, usually an older man believed to have special knowledge of the phi, may be asked to choose an auspicious day for weddings or other important events, or for household rites. Each lowland village believes itself protected by the phi ban, which requires an annual offering to ensure the continued prosperity of the village. The village spirit specialist presides over this major ritual, which in the past often involved the sacrifice of a water buffalo and is still an occasion for closing the village to any outsiders for a day. To liang phi ban (feed the village spirit) also serves an important social function by reaffirming the village boundaries and the shared interests of all villagers. *

Most Lao Theung and Lao Sung ethnic groups are animists, for whom a cult of the ancestors is also important, although each group has different practices and beliefs. The Kammu call spirits hrooy, and they are similar to the phi of the Lao Loum; the house spirit is particularly important, and spirits of wild places are to be avoided or barred from the village. Lamet have similar beliefs, and each village must have one spirit practitioner (xemia), who is responsible for making all the sacrifices to village spirits. He also supervises the men's communal house and officiates at the construction of any new houses. When a spirit practitioner dies, one of his sons is elected by the married men of the village to be his successor. If he has none, one of his brother's sons is chosen. Ancestor spirits (mbrong n'a) are very important to the Lamet because they look out for the well-being of the entire household. They live in the house, and no activity is undertaken without informing them of it. Ancestor spirits are fond of buffalos; thus buffalo skulls or horns from sacrifices are hung at the altar of the ancestors or under the gable of the house. Numerous taboos regarding behavior in the house are observed to avoid offending ancestral spirits. *

Christianity in Laos

About 1.5 percent of Laos’s population are Christians. Catholics make up 0.6 percent of the population. Fundamentalist Christian missionaries are active in Laos.

Church officials estimate there are approximately 45,000 Catholics; many are ethnic Vietnamese, concentrated in major urban centers and surrounding areas along the Mekong River in the central and southern regions. The Catholic Church has an established presence in five of the most populous central and southern provinces, and Catholics are generally able to worship openly. No ordained Catholic priests operated in the north, and the Church's activities there remain restricted. There are four bishops, two located in Vientiane Municipality and the others in Thakhek city in Khammouan Province and Pakse city in Champasak Province. One of the bishops oversees the Vientiane Diocese and is responsible for the central part of the country. The second bishop resident in Vientiane is the Bishop of Luang Prabang. He is assigned to the northern part of the country. While the Government did not permit him to take up his post, it permitted him to travel intermittently to visit church congregations in the north including in Luang Prabang, Sayaboury, and Bokeo Provinces. The Catholic Church's property in Luang Prabang was seized after the current Government took power in 1975, and there is no longer a parsonage in that city. An informal Catholic training center in Thakhek prepared a small number of priests to serve the Catholic community. Catholic personnel have also been able to go to Australia and the Philippines for training. Several foreign nuns temporarily serve in the Vientiane Diocese and work with families, the elderly, and younger members. [Source: International Religious Freedom, 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, East Asia and Pacific, Laos; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; October 26, 2009 **]

The Protestant community has grown rapidly over the past decade, and LEC officials estimate that Protestants number as many as 100,000. More than 400 LEC congregations conduct services throughout the country. The LEC maintains properties in the cities of Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Pakse, and LEC officials confirm LEC ownership is recognized in all three locations by the authorities. Many Protestants are members of ethnic Mon-Khmer groups, especially the Khmu in the north and the Brou in Savannakhet and nearby provinces. Protestantism also has expanded rapidly in the Hmong and Yao communities. In urban areas, Protestantism has attracted many lowland Lao followers. Most Protestants are concentrated in Vientiane Municipality, in the provinces of Vientiane, Sayaboury, Luang Prabang, Xiang Khouang, Bolikhamsai, Savannakhet, Champasak, and Attapeu, as well as in the former Saisomboun Special Zone, but smaller congregations are located throughout the country. Seventh-day Adventists number slightly more than 1,200 countrywide, the majority of whom reside in Vientiane Municipality. The group also has congregations in Bokeo, Bolikhamsai, Champasak, Luang Prabang, and Xiang Khouang Provinces. **

Christian groups that have some following, but which are not recognized by the Government, include Methodists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Church of Christ, Assemblies of God, Lutherans, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and Baptists. Official membership numbers are not available. All three approved Christian groups own properties in Vientiane Municipality. In addition, three informal churches, one each for English-speakers, Korean-speakers, and Chinese-speakers, serve Vientiane's foreign Protestant community. **

Although the Government did not maintain diplomatic relations with the Holy See, representatives of the Papal Nuncio have visited from Thailand and coordinated with the Government on assistance programs, especially for lepers and persons with disabilities. The Government requires and routinely granted permission for formal links with coreligionists in other countries. In practice the line between formal and informal links was blurred, and relations generally were established without much difficulty.

Muslims, Confucians, Taoists and Bahai in Laos

Less than 1 percent of Laos’s population are Muslims and Bahai. There are approximately 500 adherents of Islam, the vast majority of whom are foreign permanent residents of South Asian or Cambodian (ethnic Cham) origin. There are two active mosques in Vientiane, where the majority of Muslims reside. The Vientiane mosques follow the Sunni branch of Islam, but both are open to visits by Shi'ites as well. There are also very small numbers of Muslims living in provincial cities, including an estimated 3-4 in Pakse in Champasak Province and 2-3 in Luang Prabang, although there are no mosques in these locations. [Source: International Religious Freedom, 2009 Report on International Religious Freedom, East Asia and Pacific, Laos; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; October 26, 2009 **]

Since 2001 the Government has more closely scrutinized the activities of the small Muslim community in Vientiane but has not interfered with its religious activities. Muslims were able to practice their faith openly and attend the two active mosques. Daily prayers and the weekly Jumaat prayer on Fridays proceeded unobstructed, and all Islamic celebrations were allowed. Adherents from the two mosques belong to one Muslim Association. Government officials, including LFNC members from Vientiane Municipality and the local level, were invited to and attended Islamic festivals held by the Association. Muslims were permitted to go on the Hajj, but apparently none have done so since 2000 because of the expense. Groups have come from Thailand to conduct Tabligh teachings for adherents. Local Muslims joined with members of other religious groups to represent the Government at Interfaith Conferences on Religion in Indonesia in 2006 and in Cambodia in early 2008. **

Small groups of followers of Confucianism and Taoism practice their beliefs in the larger cities. Baha'i leaders estimated the Baha'i Faith has 8,500 adherents. A 9-member Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly oversees Baha'i activities including its five centers: two in Vientiane Municipality, one in Vientiane Province, one in Savannakhet Province, and a new center established in Paksane District of Bolikhamsai Province. A small number of Baha'is also live in Khammouane Province and in Pakse City in Champasak Province, and outreach is underway in Oudomsai, Xiang Khouang, Luang Prabang, and Salavan Provinces. **

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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