PERSECUTION AND REPRESSION OF CHRISTIANS AND RELIGION IN LAOS

RELIGIOUS PERSECUTION AND REPRESSION IN LAOS

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, other laws and policies restricted this right in practice. The Prime Minister's Decree on Religious Practice (Decree 92) is the principal legal instrument defining rules for religious practice; it institutionalizes 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, particularly at the provincial and district levels, have used its many conditions to restrict some aspects of religious practice. [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 **]

Officials in urban areas tended to show more acceptance of religious practice, with more difficulties encountered in rural areas. The law does not recognize a state religion; however, the Government's financial support and promotion of Buddhism, along with its willingness to exempt Buddhism from a number of restrictions, gave the religion an elevated status. In most areas, officials generally respected the constitutionally guaranteed rights of members of most religious groups to worship, albeit within strict constraints imposed by the Government. Authorities in some of the country's 17 provinces continued to be suspicious of non-Buddhist religious communities and displayed intolerance for minority religious practice, particularly Protestant groups, whether or not they were officially recognized. **

Local officials reportedly interfered with the right of Protestants to worship in a number of places, particularly in Luang Namtha and Bolikhamsai Provinces. Arrests and detentions of Protestants reportedly occurred during the reporting period in Luang Namtha, Phongsali, and Savannakhet Provinces. Local officials reportedly pressured Protestants to renounce their faith on threat of arrest or forceful eviction from their villages in Bolikhamsai, Houaphan, Salavan, Luang Prabang, Attapeu, Oudomsai, and Luang Namtha Provinces. **

Persons arrested or convicted for religious offenses had little protection under the law. Detained persons may be held for lengthy periods without trial. Court judges, not juries, decided guilt or innocence in court cases, and the defense rights of the accused were limited. All religious groups, including Buddhists, practice their faith in an atmosphere in which application of the law is arbitrary. Certain actions interpreted by officials as threatening brought harsh punishment. Religious practice was "free" only if practitioners stayed within tacitly understood guidelines of activity acceptable to the Government. **

The Government typically refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing on the part of its officials, even in egregious cases of religious persecution. Blame was often attributed to the victims rather than the persecuting officials. In some cases, officials continued to concoct patently unbelievable explanations for events in order to exonerate local officials. While the Government has sometimes admitted that local officials are part of the problem, it has been unwilling to take action against officials who have violated laws and regulations on religious freedom. **

See Buddhism and Pathet Lao

Restrictions on Religious Freedom in Laos

Throughout the country, religious practice was restrained by official rules and policies that allowed religious groups to practice their faith only under circumscribed conditions. However, the government structure is relatively decentralized, and central government control over provincial and district governments remained limited. As a result, the Government's tolerance of religion varied by region and by religion. Local officials were often unaware of government policies on topics such as religious tolerance due to the incomplete dissemination and application of existing laws and regulations and, when aware of the laws, often failed to enforce them. The LFNC at times visited areas where religious persecution had taken place in order to instruct local officials on government policy and regulation. More often, however, the LFNC's Religious Affairs Department encouraged local or provincial governments to resolve conflicts on their own and in accordance with Decree 92. [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 **]

Minority religious leaders saw an increasing need for training of provincial, district, and local officials to help them better understand Decree 92; some called for amending the Decree to make its language more clear and its enforcement more consistent. Baha'i spiritual assemblies in Vientiane, Savannakhet, and Champasak cities generally practiced without hindrance, and Baha'i groups faced fewer restrictions from local authorities than in the past. While cooperation from provincial-level authorities in Savannakhet Province was good, smaller Baha'i communities in Savannakhet Province continued to face restrictions by local police, including limitations on both the nature and extent of some religious activities. **

The Government strictly prohibited foreigners from proselytizing, although it permitted foreign NGOs with religious affiliations to work in the country. Although Decree 92 permits proselytizing by religious practitioners provided they obtain permission from the LFNC, the LFNC did not grant such permission, and persons found evangelizing risked harassment or arrest. In previous reporting periods, authorities arrested and expelled foreigners attempting to proselytize, but there were no reports of this during the reporting period. **

The Government permitted the printing, import, and distribution of Buddhist religious material. Although Decree 92 authorized the printing and importation of non-Buddhist religious texts and allowed religious materials to be imported from abroad, it also required permission for such activities from the LFNC. While in practice some groups were able to print their own religious materials, Baha'i and Christian groups faced challenges. The Government did not allow the printing of Bibles, and special permission was required for their importation for distribution. No Bibles were known to have been imported during the reporting period. Authorities seized religious tracts and teaching materials from Protestants entering the country from abroad, including at the Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge, and fined those carrying the materials. However, there were no reports of arrests associated with these confiscations, as had occurred in previous years. Several non-Christian groups indicated that they were not restricted in bringing religious materials into the country. **

Identity cards did not specify religion, nor did family "household registers" or passports, two other important forms of identification. On occasion local officials withheld new government ID cards or household registration documents from Protestants and denied educational benefits to their children because of their religious beliefs or threatened to withhold official documentation unless they renounced their faith. **

See Persecution of Christians in Laos Below

Abuses of Religious Freedom in Laos

Authorities continued to arrest and detain persons for their religious activities, although this occurred less frequently than in previous reporting periods. Other persons were officially detained for reasons other than religion, although religion was considered to be a factor. Efforts by local officials to force Protestants to renounce their faith continued in certain areas. In some cases, officials threatened religious minorities with arrest or expulsion from their villages if they did not comply. [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 **]

In February 2007 Bolikhamsai Province officials indicated that two Buddhist monks had been arrested for being ordained without government approval and for celebrating inappropriately following the ordination ceremony. The two were reportedly detained only a short time before being released. **

There were two known religious prisoners, both Protestants. A number of other Protestants were being detained for reasons other than their religion, although religion was alleged to have been a contributing factor in their arrests. There were no reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice; however, conflicts between ethnic groups and movement among villages sometimes exacerbated religious tensions. Proselytizing and rights to village resources were particular points of contention. Frictions also arose over the refusal of some members of minority religious groups, particularly Protestants, to participate in local Buddhist or animist religious ceremonies. The efforts of some Protestant congregations to establish churches independent of the government-sanctioned Lao Evangelical Church (LEC) continued to cause strains within the Protestant community. **

Improvements in Respect for Religious Freedom

The Government's record of respect for religious freedom, particularly in regard to Protestant minorities, continued to be marred by problems at the local level, with incidents of persecution occurring in many provinces. However, some positive steps were taken during the reporting period to address specific religious freedom concerns. [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's record of respect for religious freedom, particularly in regard to Protestant minorities, continued to be marred by problems at the local level, with incidents of persecution occurring in many provinces. However, some positive steps were taken during the reporting period to address specific religious freedom concerns. In its official pronouncements in recent years, the Government called for conciliation and equality among religious groups. The LFNC continued to instruct local officials on religious tolerance and often sought to intervene in cases where minority religious practitioners, particularly Christians, had been harassed or mistreated. **

Some areas where abuses were reported during the past 3 years experienced improvements. Conditions in Xunya Village of Luang Namtha Province have stabilized since 2007, when central-level LFNC officials apparently helped to ameliorate ongoing conditions of harassment by visiting Luang Namtha and issuing a document supporting the right of Christians in Xunya Village to worship. Although at least 10 families renounced their Christian faith in the area over the last 2 years, the situation was reported to be improving at the end of the reporting period--with LEC officials able to visit the village and village Christian families reportedly finally allowed to gather in small groups for worship. **

The Baha'i were increasing their training activities in Pakse city in Champasak Province. They were also working with the LFNC office in Thakhek city to reestablish links with Baha'i adherents believed to still live in villages in Khammouan Province, where there had been more than 1,000 believers from 200 families in the past. The Baha'i were also becoming more active in researching linkages in Oudomsai, Xiang Khouang, and Luang Prabang Provinces. In addition to being allowed to establish a new center in Bolikhamsai Province, the Baha'i gained their first adherents there from the Hmong minority group. The Baha'i also gained their first adherents in Salavan Province. **

In early 2009 more than 100 Lao Baha'i leaders and adherents joined Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Thai counterparts in attending a regional Baha'i conference in Cambodia, one of 41 regional Baha'i conferences being held worldwide at the time. In May 2008 one property in northern Vientiane Province, originally owned by Government but approved for Baha'i use, was officially deeded to the Baha'i. The Baha'i's request for the deed was supported by the LFNC. Baha'i local spiritual assemblies and the National Spiritual Assembly routinely held Baha'i 19-day feasts and celebrated all holy days without interference. The Baha'i National Spiritual Assembly in Vientiane met regularly and has sent delegations to the Universal House of Justice in Mount Carmel, in Haifa, Israel. LFNC officials have also visited the Baha'i center in Haifa. **

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.

Restrictions on Christians in Laos

Christian leaders in Luang Prabang Province reported as many as 10,000 adherents able to hold Sunday services in 48 locations: three homes converted for use as churches (although not formally registered), as well as 45 homes. In contrast, Luang Namtha provincial officials said their province had 480 Christians and were clear that provincial policy is to have Christians worship individually in their homes; Christians may request permission from village chiefs to worship as a group, but "none have done so" according to Luang Namtha officials. According to religious leaders, Luang Namtha does not allow outside Christian leaders to train in the province, nor can Christians officially travel outside the province for training. [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 **]

Protestant groups that wanted to be recognized as separate from the LEC continued to be the targets of restrictions. However, in some areas unauthorized churches generally were allowed to conduct services without hindrance by local authorities. Within the LEC, some congregations sought greater independence and forged their own connections with Protestant groups abroad. Authorities in several provinces insisted that independent church congregations return to the LEC, but in other areas authorities allowed independent churches to conduct services without hindrance. **

For a number of years Methodists have consistently sought to register with the LFNC as a separate denomination. In early 2006 some village and district officials appeared to be taking a stronger stance against unauthorized Methodist congregations; however, this reportedly tapered off in late 2006 and has appeared to occur less frequently since then. **

Between 1999 and 2001 local authorities closed approximately 20 of Vientiane Province's 60 LEC churches. Beginning in 2002, most of these churches were allowed to reopen. However, officials in several districts of Savannakhet Province did not allow local congregations, despite requests, to reopen as many as 6 of the province's approximately 40 churches, and they remained closed at the end of the reporting period. Despite requests that a church building in Dong Nong Khun Village, which was confiscated by local officials in 2000, be returned to its congregation, provincial officials stated that the number of Protestants in the village was not sufficient to warrant having a church, even though local Protestants claimed more than 120 worshippers. **

As many as 200 of the LEC's nearly 400 congregations did not have permanent church structures and conducted worship services in members' homes. Since the 2002 promulgation of Decree 92, officials from the LFNC's Religious Affairs Department have stated that home churches should be replaced with designated church structures whenever possible. However, most Christian communities have been unable to obtain permission to build new churches, even though group worship in homes is considered illegal by local authorities in many areas. Religious organization representatives pointed out that the building permit process begins at the local level and then requires provincial permission; they claimed the multiple layers of permission necessary were being used, beginning with local officials, to block the construction of new churches. No new LEC churches were permitted to officially register during the reporting period. In a few cases, villages allowed construction of new church buildings without prior official permission from higher level authorities; however, problems occurred when district or provincial officials became aware of the "illegal" construction. Home churches thus remained the only viable place of worship for many LEC congregations. **

During the reporting period, there were no reports of official interference with or denial of permission to hold religious celebrations in churches, but there were reports that Protestants in some villages were not allowed to hold Christian celebrations in their homes, thus restricting Protestant activities to church buildings only. This was particularly a problem for Protestants who had not been given approval to build church structures in their villages. For example, Protestants in Nakun Village, Bolikhamsai Province, and Xunya Village, Luang Namtha Province, were reportedly restricted in their ability to hold religious meetings and celebrations in their homes. Protestants in both villages also were not given approval to build church structures. **

Longstanding restrictions on the Catholic Church's operations in the north resulted in the continued existence of only a handful of small congregations in Luang Prabang, Sayaboury, Bokeo, and Luang Namtha Provinces as well as some village communities in Vientiane Province. Catholics in these areas sporadically held services in homes. There were no ordained Catholic priests in the north, and pastoral visits from Vientiane were intermittent. However, there were signs during the reporting period that the Government was slowly easing its control over the Catholic community in the north. Several church properties, including a school in Vientiane Municipality, were seized by the Government after 1975 and have not been returned, nor has the Government provided restitution. **

Persecution of Christians in Laos

World Evangelical Alliance reported: “Protestant Christianity and the Hmong Christian community, in particular, are seen by sections of the Lao society and the authorities as an American or imperialist “import” into the country and a threat to the Communist rule. As a result, believers are routinely expelled, forced to relocate, pressured to renounce their faith and arrested. Religious organizations and institutions have been allowed to function in Laos, but only as long as they remain under government surveillance and control. The absence of free press and lack of information infrastructure in Laos, a Communist state, often prevents news from reaching the outside world—including that of religious freedom. This incident and other recent reports, however, indicate a disturbing increase of repression facing Christians in the country.[Source: World Evangelical Alliance, May 5, 2011]

Christian missionaries have been imprisoned by the Pathet Lao. Communist persecution of Christians was especially harsh between 1975 and 1978. Restrictions eased afterward, but churches and Christians are still watched and targeted. Buddhism has regained much of its old influence, but is heavily syncretised with animism. Persecution tends to happen in cycles and is expressed on a local or regional level as much as on a national scale. In all cases, though, it can be intense and ruthless towards the Church. Missionaries are forbidden.

In early 2010, 48 Christians were forced from their homes in Katin village, Saravan province. Officials confiscated personal belongings and later destroyed six homes. When the Christians refused to renounce their faith, they were forced to walk six kilometers outside their village and were left by the side of the road. In December 2010, officials and residents of Katin destroyed rice paddies farmed by 11 Christian families previously living in the village. The destruction followed the expulsion of another seven. In January 2011, 11 Christians were arrested at gunpoint, and three house church leaders were charged for “holding a secret meeting,” a political offence punishable by law.

As of 2009, the two known prisoners in custody primarily for religious reasons. In January 2007 Khamsone Baccam, an ethnic Thai Dam man described as a Protestant leader, was arrested in Oudomsai Province. The Government was unwilling to acknowledge that he was being held, and multiple requests for information about his status remained unanswered. In 1999 authorities arrested two members of the Lao Evangelical Church in Oudomsai Province, Nyoht and Thongchanh, and charged them with treason and sedition, although their arrests appeared to have been for proselytizing. Nyoht was sentenced to 12 years in prison and died in prison in 2006. Thongchanh, whose 15 year sentence was reduced to 10 years at the end of 2006, remained in prison in Oudomsai at the end of the reporting period. [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 **]

Most problems involving interference in religious practices occurred at the provincial, district, and local levels. In March 2009 district officials banned Christians gathering to worship at a home in Nonsomboon village in Bolikhamsai Province, where an unapproved church had been destroyed. According to recent reports, local officials were allowing worship at homes to resume. In August 2008 officials of Burikan District in Bolikhamsai Province reportedly banned approximately 150 members from gathering at a home in the village for worship services, declaring that services could be held only in a church building. Earlier in the reporting period, officials reportedly destroyed the group's church in Toongpankham village. The church had apparently been built with local permission, although it had not received provincial approval. **

In July 2008 police authorities of Ad-Sapangthong District of Savannakhet Province reportedly interfered with worship by Christians in Boukham village and detained a pastor and four church members for two days; during this period they were reportedly held in foot stocks. The pastor was detained again in August along with two other church members; they were released in October. Reportedly 55 Christians were expelled from the village during this period. A senior Ministry of Public Security (MoPS) official explained that the pastor had moved to Boukham in 2005 but had failed to apply to change his household registration within six months as required; there was no confirmation of or explanation for the reported expulsion of church members by the MoPS official. **

In July 2008 in Katan village, in Ta-Oy District, Salavan Province, a local Christian man died after local authorities reportedly forced him to drink alcohol; his relatives were reportedly fined after conducting a Christian burial service. A few days later local authorities reportedly detained 80 Christians from 17 families and forced them, apparently including by withholding food, to publicly renounce their faith. In September provincial and district authorities reportedly held a meeting in the village at the request of the central government in response to international inquiries about the situation. A senior government official stated that an investigation showed that the death was due to alcoholism and that the burial dispute arose from misunderstanding between Christian and non-Christian factions in the village. The official added that no individuals were forced to renounce their faith, although some may have done so voluntarily. However, according to later reports, some village residents wanted to redeclare their faith,but authorities refused to grant permission for them to do so. There were a number of cases in which Christians were arrested for reasons other than religion, but in which religion may have played a factor. **

Persecution of Christians in Ethnic Minorities in Laos

In April 2009 the final two pastors from a group of eight Khmu pastors jailed in the Oudomsai provincial prison were reportedly released. In November 2008 six members of the group had been released from detention; each was ordered to pay $350(Kip 3,000,000) in detention costs. The group had been stopped, searched, and all eight members arrested while attempting to cross the border from Bokeo Province into Thailand in March 2008. There was no indication that the group was trying to cross the border legally. Their situation was complicated when authorities found they were carrying documents critical of religious persecution in Laos. [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 **]

In early 2009 8 heads of families from a group of 10 Hmong and Khmu Christian families were reportedly returned to Vietnam. According to this report, Lao authorities had ascertained that these heads of family had moved from Vietnam to Vang Vieng in northern Vientiane Province more than 7 years earlier and had been illegally living in Laos without documentation. Vang Vieng officials were said to have allowed these 10 local Hmong and Khmu Christian families to move from Vientiane Province to neighboring provinces after a February 2007 insurgent attack on an army camp near Vang Vieng that reportedly killed two Lao Army soldiers. However, the Vang Vieng officials had not provided the legal documents required for such a move and, after a short period, reportedly required the families to return to Vang Vieng. The male heads of family--seven Hmong and three Khmu--reportedly were then detained at Vientiane Province's Thong Harb Prison. Of the original 10 detainees, one reportedly died in late 2007 and another in May 2008. The other eight remained in Thong Harb Prison for more than a year before being deported. **

In February 2008 authorities reportedly arrested 58 persons from 15 families during raids on Sai Jareun and Fai villages in Bokeo Province. Those arrested were described as Hmong Christians who had fled persecution in Vietnam possibly as early as 2002 and were apparently part of the Sai Jareun Village Christian congregation. Reports circulated that some or all of those arrested had been sentenced to prison or deported to Vietnam. One foreign organization claimed that nine Hmong church leaders from the area were sentenced to 15 years in prison on February 22, 2008, as a result of these raids. However, no local sources corroborated the report of imprisonments, and the Government denied that anyone from the area was sentenced to prison. One senior official confirmed that a number of persons were deported to Vietnam, but of those deported, there was no indication that any were in Laos legally. The same official described any deportations that had occurred as resulting from the investigation of an earlier clash between authorities and drug traffickers. **

In July 2007, attacks by the authorities led to the deaths of 13 Hmong Christians and arrests of others from Bokeo's Sai Jareun Village, reportedly because of a perception of some possible connection to the dwindling but still ongoing insurgency. Although the reports of the fighting appear accurate, the official government response was that those involved were actually trafficking illegal narcotics and resisted police attempts to arrest them. Bokeo Province, which borders both Burma and Thailand, is located on a major transit route for methamphetamine trafficking and thus hosts a concentration of law enforcement activity. Following the original incident, according to later reports, movement of persons within the area was highly restricted for some time, and many were jailed, including one Hmong church leader sentenced to 5 years in prison. Subsequent reports claimed that the church in Sai Jareun Village, which had numbered more than 1,000 members before this situation arose, had fewer than 30 in the aftermath of the crackdown. **

Pressuring Protestants to Renounce Their Beliefs in Laos

There have been a number of cases of officials pressuring Protestants to renounce their belief. In July 2008 more than 500 Christians in villages in several villages in Luang Prabang Province, including Huay An in Jomphet District, reportedly came under pressure to deny their faith by judicial and police officials. The Christians were said to have been forced to turn in Bibles and hymnals that were then burned. However, according to one nongovernment source, no one was arrested and none had renounced their religion. The provincial LFNC office was given credit by religious leaders for stepping in to help resolve the situation in Jomphet District by calling local officials, including the police, to Luang Prabang city to review Decree 92 with them. The provincial LFNC office was also credited with resolving an earlier situation in Luang Prabang's Ngoy District in which seven Christians had been arrested in January 2008 and released 3 months later. Although Ngoy District continued to have problems, according to a provincial-level Christian leader, Christians in the other ten districts in Luang Prabang were generally free to worship. [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 **]

There were also reports of incidents in four other provinces in July 2008. These included two Christian leaders arrested in Khongnoy village in Vieng Phukha District and another person arrested in Sing District, all in Luang Namtha Province. According to Luang Namtha officials, the problem in Khongnoy village was caused by a religious leader from neighboring Bokeo Province proselytizing in Khongnoy village without permission; the officials denied that arrests had taken place in the case. They rejected reports that Christians had been forced to renounce their religion in Luang Namtha Province, saying that some persons had voluntarily given up Christianity when it led to conflicts within their families or when inducements to convert were not fulfilled. The Chief of Sing District denied that anyone had been arrested in July 2008. **

Also in July 2008 there was a report that local officials pressed families in Attapeu Province to give up Christianity, although a visit by a provincial LFNC official was described as having resolved that situation. Officials reportedly put two persons in prison in Phongsali Province's Samphan City in an effort to force believers to renounce their faith. Other Christians were said to have been pressured to renounce their beliefs in Houaphan Province's Muang Aet District. In November 2008 seven families in Nam Reng village in Oudomsai Province were reportedly also pressured to renounce their faith; the six families refusing to sign a renunciation document were reportedly ordered out of the village. According to one report, they eventually moved to another village with a Christian community. **

There were no reports of expulsions of Protestant families who in early 2007 had faced threats of expulsion from their villages if they did not renounce their beliefs. There were no updates in four previously reported 2006 and 2007 cases of arrests and detentions of 18 Protestants for periods ranging from three weeks to six months or more. Three pastors, considered the leaders of a group of ethnic Khmu Protestants arrested in Khon Khen Village in November 2006, were jailed for approximately one year before they were released by the end of 2007. In Xunya Village of Luang Namtha Province, where an original 45 Christian families, numbering more than 200 persons--mostly Yao, Khmu, and Hmong--more than ten families have reportedly renounced their religion under pressure from the police during the last 2 years. **

Improvements in Respect for the Rights of Christians in Laos

Christian leaders cited overall progress toward religious freedom, remembering that Christmas services were not permitted as recently as 2006 in Vientiane Municipality. Progress was seen as spreading to the provinces. In December 2008 observers found encouraging the ability of the central LEC leadership to undertake training programs for provincial religious leaders and provincial government officials in Oudomsai and Luang Prabang provinces with support from both provincial governments. Training was held in Vientiane province at the Provincial and district levels, and preparations were underway to extend the training to the village level. By the end of the reporting period, observers also saw improvements in Phongsali Province, with LEC adherents able to travel to Vientiane for training and public baptisms. Luang Prabang Province, with a reported 10,000 Christians generally free to worship at 48 sites and with 10 of 11 districts regarded as generally problem-free at the end of the reporting period, was seen as setting a positive standard. [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 LEC continued to conduct an active program of public service during this reporting period, providing developmental assistance and organizing social welfare projects in several areas that had previously experienced religious intolerance. In conjunction with the LFNC, the LEC continued to conduct meetings with officials and Protestants in some villages where there had been religious tensions. Senior LEC leaders increased their contacts with the international religious community as the LEC became a full member of the World Council of Churches in 2008. **

In May 2007, the LFNC's director of religious affairs held a country-wide seminar that included attendance by 95 Vientiane and provincial-level representatives of all four approved religions to review religious rights granted under the Constitution and in the law and to discuss resolving religious and ethnic issues. [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 **]

In July 2007, the LFNC held a second meeting for religious leaders and officials from Vientiane Municipality and Vientiane Province, including from the provincial, district, and local levels. Those attending were to take back lessons learned to be applied locally. Officials from the LFNC also traveled with representatives of the LEC to several provinces to promote better understanding between LEC congregations and local officials during the reporting period. **

Leaders of an international NGO that has sponsored two major international conferences on "Religion and the Rule of Law" visited Vientiane in October 2008 and won government approval for the country to host a third iteration of this conference in Vientiane in late 2009 or early 2010. In June 2008 senior government and LFNC officials had participated in the NGO's second conference in Beijing, which examined key issues relating to freedom of religion. Government officials had attended the NGO's first conference on the same subject in Vietnam in 2007. **

The Catholic Church reported a number of improvements over past reporting periods. An ordination of a Catholic priest in January 2009 in Khammouan Province continued to demonstrate a significant improvement from past restrictions. In February 2009 baptism of 710 new Catholics in Vientiane Province, some of whom had been waiting for as long as 15 years for permission to be baptized, was another significant step forward for the Catholic Church. The Government also permitted the Bishop of Luang Prabang, who serves from Vientiane, to visit the north more frequently to conduct services for the scattered Catholic communities in Luang Prabang, Sayaboury, Bokeo, and Luang Namtha, but it continued to restrict his travel and deny him residence in Luang Prabang. **

Christians Killed and Pastors Tortured for 'Spreading Christian Religion'

In May 2011, the World Evangelical Alliance reported: “Several Christians were recently attacked and killed in Xiengkhouang Province, Laos, underscoring the intense repression and abuse facing followers of Christ in the nation. On April 15, troops from the Lao People’s Army caught a group of Christians belonging to the Hmong community, an ethnic minority. All of the believers’ Bibles were confiscated. The troops shot and killed four of the women after repeatedly raping two of them. Their husbands and children were beaten, tied up and forced to witness the gruesome killings. At last report, the whereabouts of the surviving believers were unknown. Around last Christmas, authorities in Khammouan Province reportedly unlawfully detained 11 church leaders. Seven Christian families were also reportedly expelled by officials in Katin village, Salvan Province, earlier this year. [Source: World Evangelical Alliance, May 5, 2011]

In April 2013, Christian Today reported: “Three Christian pastors in Lao have been released from prison after being arrested on 5 February on charges of "spreading the Christian religion". Pastors Bounma, Somkaew and Bounmee were arrested on 5 February 2013 by the Phin District police in Savannakhet province after a police officer saw them copying and watching a DVD about the 'End Times' in a copy shop in Phin District market. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) confirmed that all three pastors have returned to their homes. They were arrested despite insisting the three copies were for their own use. While one pastor and the shop owner were released soon after their arrest, the two other pastors were detained at Phin district prison. [Source: Christian Today, April 23, 2013 |:|]

“CSW received reports that they were being held in a high security section of the prison where prisoners' legs are chained together and inmates are not allowed to leave the room. Pastor Bounma was reportedly kicked and beaten severely by the arresting police lieutenant whilst in detention in an attempt to force him to confess. |:|

“CSW's Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said he was "deeply concerned" about the false allegations against the men and about the use of torture to extract a confession. "We urge the Lao authorities to protect the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and to ensure that detainees are not subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, in line with the Lao government's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights," he said. |:|

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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