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. **
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 state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports **]
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. **
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 **]
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
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. **
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. **
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.
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. |:|
Text Sources: International Religious Freedom, East Asia and Pacific, Laos; U.S. State Department, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; October 26, 2009 state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports 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.